Brigham Young University is as close as two weeks away from signing a 49-year land-lease agreement for its Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies, a longtime target of criticism from outspoken leaders of ultra-conservative Jewish sects.
After including a few revisions regarding restriction against proselyting, the Israeli Cabinet approved the lease agreement for the BYU Jerusalem Center. The lease is currently under review by the Israeli attorney general before being submitted to BYU."We've been working on this since 1985 when the project started," said Paul Richards, BYU's director of public communication.
He called the Knesset's approval "a major hurdle" as well as "a major benchmark for us to have accomplished."
The $20 million center, completed late last year, is used by BYU for its Study Abroad and Travel Study programs. Outspoken ultra-orthodox Jews have opposed the construction of the center, expressing fears that the center would be used in proselyting efforts of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns BYU.
Richards said the Israeli Cabinet made some adjustments in highlighting the restrictions against proselyting before giving its approval Sunday.
After a review by the Israeli attorney general, the revised lease contract will be submitted to BYU's administration, legal counsel and board of trustees for final approval before being signed.
The agreement for the lease of the government-controlled land could be completed in a couple of weeks, Richards added.
The center has been operating under a provisional construction lease that allowed students to be moved into the partially completed facility in March 1987. However, once the center was complete, BYU
and the Israeli government started serious negotiations on the lease agreement.
Richards said the fear-of-proselyting controversy has been overblown with no such problems being reported in the nearly three semesters that BYU students have been studying at the new center.
"We've now convinced the Cabinet and the government that we are not there to proselyte," he said, adding that has been a BYU promise to Israel over the years.
While confrontations arose several years ago when BYU announced its plans to start construction, few, if any, problems concerning proselyting for the LDS Church had been reported since the university established a study program based in Israel 18 years ago.
"I don't think the controversy will ever go away . . . but it does enable us to move about with confidence with the center's programs without the fears of closing down," Richards said.
Minor construction efforts are concluding at the center, with a dedication date still to be scheduled.