Orthodox denominations face discrimination from authorities, nominally Christian gatekeepers.
HAIFA, Israel, July 8 (Compass Direct News) – Here in Israel’s third-largest city, it was not possible for the Russian Orthodox relatives of a 65-year-old woman who died on June 27 to find a Christian cemetery for her.
Their plight – for five days the body of Nadejda Edelman was stored at a hospital morgue – is common to Christians of foreign ancestry throughout the country. When Edelman passed away in Rambam Medical Center in this northern Israeli city, it took almost a week to find a grave for her and arrange for a funeral. Haifa, with 265,000 people, is 90 kilometers (56 miles) north of Tel Aviv.
On July 1 Edelman, a devout Christian, was buried outside of Haifa in Emeq Hefer Local Council Cemetery – a “secular” site for persons of no faith tradition. Had there been a Christian cemetery available, Edelman’s family might still have had problems obtaining a plot; the immigrant had not been able to have her ID registered as “Christian,” only as “Russian.”
“A cross on her neck and a testimony on her behalf by her close friend, as Edelman was childless, didn’t convince the authorities, and even if it would have, there are just no existing solutions for the deceased Russian Orthodox Christians of Russian origin in Israel,” said one of the founders of Sophia, an association of Russian Orthodox Christians in northern Israel. He requested anonymity.
Throughout Israel it’s not unusual for delays of days or weeks for burial of the Christian deceased of foreign ancestry. One Christian, Sergei Loper, was not buried until 20 days after his death; for another, Yuri Neverdasov, an available grave was not found for five days.
Christians make up 2.1 percent of Israel’s population, and the Orthodox denominations are a fraction of that. The issue of funeral rites and burials in Israel is especially difficult for these minorities, given the country’s complicated ethnic and religious makeup and laws that give religious institutions control over personal matters such as weddings, births and deaths.
The faith communities of Jews and Arabs in Israel each have their own designated burial societies that are responsible for arranging burials as well as religious rituals. Jewish burial societies called Hevra Kadisha are responsible for the Jewish deceased, while Arab burial societies provide services for Arab Muslims and Christians.
Such societies must obtain a special permit from the Ministry of Religious Affairs and sign a contract with the Social Security Service; this latter agency then covers the cost of burial fees in accordance with Israeli law. In theory every family in Israel is entitled to this reimbursement, but Russian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox families miss out because the funds go to the Arab burial societies rather than directly to the survivors.
Problems in addressing foreigners’ needs began in the early 1990s with a massive wave of immigration from the Former Soviet Union. Along with Jewish relatives, many Christians, Muslims and non-religious emigrants from Russia settled in Israel. Soon authorities were hard-pressed to address the needs of children of mixed marriages and of non-Jewish spouses and relatives – some with religious backgrounds other than Judaism, some holding no defined religious views and some who were atheists.
The question of foreign (especially Russian) Christians, as well as that of Jews who openly declared their conversion to Christianity, was especially disturbing, and Israel initially dealt with it by registering many people only as “Russians” without any reference to their religious belief. Later the religious designation for all people was eliminated from Israeli identification cards.
With legislation that was passed in 1992 but took more than a decade to implement, eventually authorities worked out a partial solution – establishing a few secular cemeteries and creating sections within Jewish cemeteries for “non-religious persons.” These measures did not meet the needs of people who wished to be buried in accordance with their religious beliefs, especially the Russian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox Christians.
Discrimination against Non-Arabs
The Sophia association has tried to address this complicated issue and assist members of the Russian Orthodox community and their families. Thus far authorities have little heeded their plea.
“It would be only natural if Christians would be buried in Christian cemeteries, yet the Arab local councils usually decline our requests,” said Dr. Ilya Litvin of Haifa, a member of Sophia.
In Israel’s Arab Christian cemeteries, the heads of local councils are the only ones entitled to make the decisions, but many of them are Christians by birth only; they belong to Communist parties and in reality have little sympathy for religious sentiment, advocates said.
“They claim that there is a severe shortage of graves there and little possibility for expansion, yet I believe that it’s just politics,” Litvin said. “They don’t really care about us – we are not Arabs.”
Oleg Usenkov, press-secretary of St. Nicolay’s church at Migdal ha-Emeq, added that a Christian burial may sometimes come only as a negotiated favor.
“Sometimes our priest, Father Roman Radwan, pulls personal connections and after some negotiations they allocate a grave for the deceased members of our community, but usually we hear a ‘No,’” he said.
Other options for the church are the non-Jewish section at the Jewish cemetery or the secular cemetery. It is usually not possible, however, to conduct Christian ceremonies at these sites.
Usenkov of St. Nicolay’s church said he vividly recalls a recent funeral of his friend Andrey Shelkov.
“The funeral was organized by the Jerusalemite Hevra Kadisha [Jewish burial society], and we were not even allowed to put a cross inside the coffin,” Usenkov said. “One of the Hevra Kadisha workers felt sorry for us and told me, ‘You can draw a Pisces [fish symbol] on his arm and put it inside the coffin, isn’t that a Christian symbol as well?’ Imagine that: having to draw a Pisces, just like the early Christians who had to hide their faith!”
Burials can be costly, and the Israeli Social Security Service covers burial fees only by transferring the compensation to the burial societies, not to the families of the deceased. Since there is no such burial society for Russian Orthodox Christians, state funds to cover the high costs go to local councils’ treasuries rather than to the families.
The leaders of Sophia have requested the office of Israel’s prime minister to give their association status similar to that of a Hevra Kadisha, which would allow Sophia to meet the burial needs of Russian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox Christians, but to no avail.
“In reply we received a formal letter which offers no solution,” said Litvin. “The letter suggested that we should somehow obtain a cemetery, and that then we were to apply to the Ministry of Religious Affairs for the license – which is practically impossible, and everyone knows it.”
A written inquiry by Compass to the social security office elicited the same response.
“We feel helpless and frustrated: the heads of Greek Orthodox Church choose not to interfere, or maybe they can’t, while the Israeli authorities are brushing us off,” Litvin said. “As a result, innocent people are denied of their basic right – to be buried according to their religious beliefs. Some of them are childless and poor, and there is no one to stand up for their rights. We hope that someone will take responsibility for this issue.”
Report from Compass Direct News