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The BBC's Hilary Andersson
"Israel's ultra-Orthodox party now has a martyr"
 real 56k

The BBC's David Horowitz
"Shas could yet emerge as the biggest party in Israeli politics""
 real 28k

The BBC's Hillary Andersson in Jerusalem
"It's a move which will anger Israel's religious parties and in particular Shas"
 real 28k

Monday, 4 September, 2000, 02:52 GMT 03:52 UK
Barak abolishes religious ministry
Deri on his way to prison, surrounded by supporters
Shas has undermined Israel's traditional power structure
The Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, has announced plans to abolish the Religious Affairs Ministry as part of a programme of social reform.

The move is expected to anger religious parties, particularly the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which has already withdrawn from Mr Barak's government in protest over his peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

Correspondents say Mr Barak's plans for social change aim at greater equality between religious and non-religious Jews in matters of education and military service.

However Shas has accused Mr Barak of trying to undermine its power.

Shas leader jailed

The ministry has always been headed by a religious party - either the National Religious Party, or more recently, Shas.


God willing, we will continue this revolution

Aryeh Deri
Earlier on Sunday thousands of Shas supporters rallied outside a prison near Tel Aviv, as the party's former leader, Aryeh Deri, began a three-year prison term for bribetaking.

Long lines of cars accompanied Mr Deri along the route towards Ayalon prison, the drivers honking their support for him.

"My heart is with you, and your heart is with me together, and together, ," Mr Deri said before going to jail.

The BBC correspondent in Jerusalem, Hilary Andersson, says Mr Deri's supporters see his imprisonment as politically-motivated attempt to prevent the Shas party from becoming even more popular than it already is.

She says that Shas and other ultra-orthodox religious parties believe that religious laws are more important than governmental or judicial edicts, but that secular Israelis fear that these views threaten Israel's democracy.

Secular revolution

The Israeli cabinet approved the decision to abolish the Religious Affairs Ministry but it has yet to be approved by the Knesset, which is currently in recess.

Deri with Rabbi Uri Zahar at a recent rally
Deri (left) with Rabbi Uri Zahar at a recent rally
Mr Barak has described the ministry as a bloated bureaucracy and officials said the decision was partly designed to save money.

Secular parties accuse Shas and the National Religious Party - which has also controlled the Ministry in the past - of handing out jobs to party activists.

Mr Barak has said his social reforms will include the introduction of a secular constitution, undermining rabbinical authority in areas of marriage and divorce.

He also said he would end exemption from military service for Orthodox Jews, and bring religious schools, such as those run by Shas, into line with the state education system.

The country's Chief Rabbi, Israel Meir Lau said the move to abolish the Ministry left a bitter taste because of Mr Barak's apparent political intentions.

Bribery

But, he said, he agreed with it because politics and religion made a bad mix.

Mr Deri was found guilty of fraud, abuse of confidence, and accepting bribes worth more than $60,000 while serving in the Interior Ministry between 1985 and1990. He stepped down as Shas leader in June.

His supporters say he is innocent, and was only convicted because he is a Sephardic - or non-European - Jew.

The ultra-Orthodox Shas Party has undermined Israel's power structure, traditionally dominated by Ashkenazi Jews from Europe.

It dealt a crushing blow to Prime Minister Ehud Barak in July, when it left his Labour-led coalition in protest at his peace policies.

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See also:

07 Aug 00 | Middle East
Rabbi tones down Holocaust slur
12 Jul 00 | Middle East
Jail term for Shas leader
22 Jun 00 | Middle East
Shas: Breaking the Israeli mould
27 Mar 00 | Middle East
Israeli police probe religious leader
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