Spray-painted slogans reading "AIDS Mormons" and "Mormons Go Home" sometimes greet students walking to class at the Brigham Young University study center on the biblical Mount of Olives.
The graffiti signals a renewal of anti-Mormon sentiment in Jerusalem, especially among Orthodox Jews who fear The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is conducting missionary work at its $15 million facility.
LDS and Israeli government officials deny the charge. But Orthodox leaders vow to use the political muscle their parties gained in this month's national elections to remove the Mormons from the Holy Land.
"We want them to leave and now we have room to do something about it," said Rabbi Menachem Porush, whose Agudat Israel Party won five seats in the Knesset, or parliament. "The Mormons are very dangerous. They have made it unsafe for Jews."
BYU spokesman Brent Harker said Porush and representatives of the ultra-orthodox parties have attacked BYU's right to be in Jerusalem for nearly four years, but have failed to show that the students and faculty there are dangerous. "They cannot demonstrate that BYU has violated any of its agreements with the Israeli government. We don't believe that Porush represents the Israeli people and we trust the government to honor its lease."
Harker said Porush speaks for a tiny constituency, yet is adept at catching news media attention because of his outlandish opinions. "We're hopeful that the tension there will be resolved some day," he said.
Porush contends the LDS Church members are trying "to systematically convert young Jews" in violation of a lease agreement that forbids missionary activities at their Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies.
He said Orthodox leaders want the Israeli government to buy the LDS center and convert it into a religious high school for Jews.
"We would be more than happy to buy it from them," Porush said. "We will pay any price."
Martin Hickman, the center's director, said the seven-story marble and limestone building "is not for sale.'
He added that he expects the government to honor the church's 49-year lease on the property despite the growing influence of Orthodox parties.
"We realize there are certain groups that wish we weren't here," Hickman said in an interview. "But we respect the integrity of the government of Israel, which has made a commitment that we intend to keep."
Construction of the center began in 1984 after lengthy negotiations between the Israeli government and the LDS Church-owned BYU, which runs the center. Approval was given only after LDS leaders pledged not to proselytize.
The LDS Church, with headquarters in Salt Lake City, has about 6,500 congregations worldwide with 6.5 million members.
Since its completion in January, the center has been supervised by a five-member committee of three Israeli government officials and two LDS representatives.
Haim Klugman, the Justice Ministry director-general who serves as committee chairman, said there is no evidence the church members have violated their agreement.
"We are here to deal with every complaint, but we have had none," Klugman said.
Hickman said the center's nine faculty members and 105 students are well aware of the conditions of the lease and are careful not to do or say anything that could be misinterpreted as missionary work.
"Some people think we're here to convert their Jewish state to a Mormon state," said David Daines, 23, of Provo. A junior at BYU, Daines is a student at the Jerusalem center.
"I came here to study and to learn, not to proselytize," Daines insisted. He said he ignored the graffiti.
Students take courses for a four-month program that includes Middle East history, archeology and Bible studies Lisa Hillyard, 20, a native of Logan, and a junior from Utah State University, said Israel's Orthodox Jews need not be concerned despite the tradition of missionary work among young LDS members.
"I understand that they were a little nervous about letting us in," she said. "But we gave our word."
Earlier this year, the American-born right-wing Rabbi Meir Kahane and about 50 of his supporters marched near the center to demand its closure. Kahane vowed to shut it down if he came to power.
Porush contends the LDS members use the study center as a cover for missionary activities from the Mount of Olives, where Christians believe Christ ascended to heaven.
He said the national elections, in which religious parties captured 18 of the 120 seats in parliament, have put Orthodox Jews in a position to scrutinize LDS activities.
"We are not trying to hurt any religion, we just want our religion to be left alone," Porush said. "We will not let them do their dangerous missionary work here."
Harker said trying to reason with Porush is "like talking to a brick wall. That particular element simply does not listen to reason. He just keeps coming back with the same paranoia. He refuses to give us the respect that giving our word deserves."
Associated Press and Deseret News