Israel’s population of just over 8 million is approximately 75% Jewish, 17% Muslim, 2% Christian and 1.5% Druze. The remainder are smaller religious minorities. Within the majority Jewish population there is a growing Messianic Jewish community, estimated to number approximately 20,000. Within the wider Christian communities a large number of churches are officially registered, including Catholic (Roman, Armenian, Syrian, Chaldean and Greek Catholic, and Maronite), Eastern Orthodox (Greek and Syrian Orthodox), Oriental Orthodox (Armenian Apostolic) and Protestant (Anglican) traditions. Non-recognised churches may operate but cannot establish personal status courts. The Ethiopian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox and Lutheran churches, together with the Convention of Evangelical Churches in Israel, have outstanding applications for full recognition.
Israel’s Basic Law establishes Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.” The Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty has consistently been interpreted as protecting freedom of religious practice. Recognised religious communities are authorised to operate courts covering personal status matters, and may alternatively seek adjudication on some matters within the civil courts. Although proselytising is not illegal, it is a legal offence to offer inducements to conversion and to seek to convert a minor to a religion not held by either of the minor’s parents.
Israel ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on 3rd October 1991. The ICCPR upholds the right to freedom of religion, including the right to hold a religion of one’s choice and the right to manifest that religion (Article 18). It also upholds the rights of minorities and the principle of non-discrimination. In ratifying the ICCPR, Israel reserved the right to apply religious laws for personal status matters.
Messianic believers have at times faced social prejudice and harassment. In some cases Jewish people seeking to enter Israel under the Law of Return (Aliyah) claim they have faced obstruction or discrimination if their Messianic beliefs have become known to the authorities. Within Arab Muslim communities, there is strong family and societal pressure against those who choose to leave Islam. In extreme cases those who leave Islam can face violent responses from family members. Recognised Christian communities have also faced societal pressure, including at the hands of ultra-Orthodox groups or radical Israeli settlers who have perpetrated campaigns of vandalism against church buildings in what are known as “price tag” attacks. Churches also experience difficulties in their relationships with the Israeli Government, sometimes due to the perceived pro-Palestinian stance of some churches. Diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Israel are strained, exacerbated by the Holy See’s recognition of the State of Palestine in an accord signed in June 2015. Areas of tension include the issue of ownership of some holy sites with an implication for the tax status of some Catholic church assets. Efforts are ongoing to restore relations.