Ultra-Orthodox Jews held a mass pray-in Thursday at the Western Wall to protest construction of a Mormon center they fear will become a mission to convert Jews.
About 7,000 protesters, in the full black coats and sidelocks of Hasidic Jews, said prayers of lamentation under a huge red banner reading: "Mormons Stop Your Missionary Project Now." The protest was endorsed by Israel's two chief rabbis.
David B. Galbraith, the Mormon official at the focus of the mounting controversy, said he has given a written pledge that the center, which is being built on the slopes of Mt. Scopus, just below Hebrew University and across from the Mount of Olives, "will not be used for proselytizing the Jewish people."
"Having given that undertaking, I don't know what more I can do," said Galbraith, director of the Jerusalem program for Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.
Galbraith said he was surprised by the active role played by the chief rabbis, who are the only government-approved religious authorities in Israel.
An anti-missionary group called Yad Lachim, Hebrew for "hand to the brothers," has appealed the issue to a Parliament committee that is reviewing the building licenses granted last year to Brigham Young University.
Galbraith told reporters that the committee demanded a cash bond that would be forfeited if any students at the center engaged in missionary work. He said he refused.
Israelis are particularly sensitive about missionary work because of centuries of religious persecution, including forced conversion. Spreading the faith is a tenet of the Mormons.