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 


Muslim protestors disrupt public forum on dual legal system’s jurisdictional disputes.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, August 15 (Compass Direct News) – A civil court on Aug. 5 denied a woman’s appeal to renounce Islam in favor of Christianity, highlighting the jurisdictional disputes in Malaysia’s dual legal system.

Lim Yoke Khoon had filed a suit in her original ethnic Chinese name to renounce Islam and embrace Christianity. In a 2-1 majority ruling, the Shah Alam Court of Appeal denied her case on a technicality: According to judges Tengku Baharudin Shah Tengku Mahmud and Sulong Mat Jeraie, Lim had ceased to exist under her original name when she converted to Islam and assumed a new name, Noorashikin Lim binti Abdullah.

The 35-year-old Lim is reportedly expected to appeal to the country’s top civil court.

After marrying a Muslim man in 1994, Lim converted to Islam and obtained a new identity card with her Muslim name. She divorced three years later. In 2003, she applied for a change to her name and religion on her identity card, but the National Registration Department told her she must get permission from the Islamic sharia court to renounce Islam.

She sought a declaration from the high court that she was no longer a Muslim, but it ruled in 2006 that it had no jurisdiction to hear the case.

Malaysia’s civil courts have not been known to rule in favor of non-Muslims in conversion cases in recent years. Many, such as Lina Joy, have been directed to obtain an exit certificate from the sharia court in order to leave Islam. But Lina – and others like her – are reluctant to subject themselves to a religious court that has no jurisdiction over them since they are no longer professing Muslims.


Quelling Discussion

A public forum to discuss such jurisdictional disputes, in this case the dual court system’s effect on families of people who convert to Islam, was scheduled for Saturday (Aug. 9) but Muslim protestors succeeded in halting it after only one hour.

Sponsored by a body of legal practitioners called the Malaysian Bar Council, the public forum that began at 9 a.m. was scheduled to last until 1 p.m., but police advised organizers to end it at 10 a.m. as protestors outside the council headquarters shouting “Allahu Akbar [God is greater],” “Destroy Bar Council” and “Long Live Islam” became rowdy. A handful of protestors flanked by police officers marched into the building shouting for the meeting to end immediately.

The protestors included members from several Malay-Muslim movements, including the Malaysian Islamic Propagation and Welfare Organization and the Federation of Malay Students Union, as well as members of political parties such as the United Malays National Organization, the People’s Justice Party (PKR) and Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS).

The forum had been widely criticized by various Malay-Muslim groups and individuals for raising the ire of Muslims by touching on issues sensitive to Islam. Among those critical were cabinet ministers, including Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar and Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Dr. Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.

Prior to the event, the Bar Council had been urged to either cancel the forum or hold the event behind closed doors, but the organizers decided to proceed albeit with the cautionary measure of requiring participants at the open forum to register.

A day prior to the forum, the Bar Council issued a press release to clarify the purpose of the forum through council Vice President Ragunath Kesavan. Ragunath made clear that the forum would not question the provisions of Article 121(1A), which confer jurisdiction over Muslims in personal, religious and family matters on the sharia courts, and that the forum would not question Islam or its status as enshrined in the Federal Constitution.

Rather, Ragunath said, the purpose of the meeting was to address issues affecting families of those who convert to Islam and were caught between the separate jurisdiction of the civil and sharia courts.

The morning of the forum, two unidentified men on motorcycles threw kerosene bombs into the compound of a residence formerly occupied by the president of the Bar Council, Ambiga Sreenevasan. Many believed the incident was linked to the Bar Council’s forum on conversion.


Other Muslim Responses

Not all Muslims agreed with the protestors’ actions.

Leaders of the Muslim political party PAS and Muslim-led multi-racial party, PKR, have distanced themselves from members who participated in the raucous disruption of the Bar Council forum.

Dr. Dzulkifli Ahmad, director of the PAS Research Centre, told The Star daily on Wednesday (Aug. 13), “We were unanimous that [the forum] should have been allowed to proceed,” and that “those who had united to oppose the forum had no understanding of the issue at hand.”

PKR Deputy President Syed Husin Ali reportedly also condemned the “rough action” of the protestors, although he said the party agreed with its adviser Anwar Ibrahim that the meeting should have been held behind closed doors “in view of the sensitive reactions and wrong perception among a section of the Malay-Muslim community.”

Karim Raslan, a Malay-Muslim columnist at The Star argued that “we can’t achieve any sense of mutual agreement unless we are willing to talk – and openly – to one another about the issues that matter.”


Non-Muslim Reactions

Civil society groups and members of the non-Muslim community, including those from the ruling coalition government, have also criticized the Muslim protestors’ actions for failing to acknowledge long-standing problems non-Muslims caught in jurisdictional conflict situations have had to face and endure.

Others have urged the government to take decisive and immediate steps to address the problems arising from the country’s dual legal system. In Malaysia, sharia laws are binding on Muslims in personal, religious and family matters while civil laws apply to all citizens.

Joint Action Group for Gender Equality, representing five different women’s groups, reportedly called on the government “to act against mob rule and to allow citizens more democratic space for open dialogue.”

T. Mohan, youth coordinator of the Malaysian Indian Congress, a party within the ruling coalition, told online news agency Malaysiakini on Monday (Aug. 11), “[The protestors] should have come out with their proposals in addressing the issue of non-Muslim husbands who abandon their spouses and their families and convert into Islam, rather than stop a legitimate forum.”

Dr. Koh Tsu Koon, acting president of Gerakan, a party within the ruling coalition government, was quoted in local media as calling for the government to convene a joint committee of civil and sharia lawyers “to formulate, clarify and rectify procedures related to marriage between Muslims and non-Muslims, conversion, custody of children and burial rituals.”  

Report from Compass Direct News