Israel supreme court warns government over Western Wall deadlock

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Jerusalem (AFP)

Israel's supreme court warned Thursday it could push for the government to implement a stalled deal allowing men and women to pray together at a revered Jewish shrine in Jerusalem, NGOs said.

In January last year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rightwing government agreed after a long campaign by reform movements to allow mixed worship at a section of east Jerusalem's Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray.

But under pressure from ultra-Orthodox political paries, whose support is vital for the government's slender parliamentary majority, Netanyahu later froze implementation of the scheme.

The result was a wave of anger from the influential American Jewish community, the majority of whom follow more liberal strands of Judaism.

Hila Perl is a spokeswoman for "Women of the Wall", one of the groups petitioning the supreme court for the agreement to be honoured.

She told AFP said that she expects it to shortly set a 30- to 60-day deadline for the government to unfreeze the plan or to defend its refusal in court.

The Israel Religious Action Centre, representing the reform movement, said the judges sent the government an unequivocal message about the Orthodox monopoly on religious practice at the wall, known in Hebrew as the kotel.

"The court spoke loud and clear stating that the current state of affairs in the kotel is discriminatory and can’t continue," the centre said in a statement.

"The court asked the government to reconsider the freeze of the kotel plan. This is the opportunity for PM Netanyahu to lead," it said.

The country's highest court has yet to rule on the matter but is expected to do so in the coming weeks.

In accordance with strict ultra-Orthodox tradition, there are currently separate prayer sections for women and men at the wall, one of the last remnants of the Second Jewish Temple destroyed in 70 AD.

Women are also barred from leading prayers or bringing in Torah scrolls, and activists have for years been campaigning for equal prayer rights.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews represent about 10 percent of the Israeli population.