Ethiopian Jews on Hunger Strike to Migrate

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia - Hundreds of Ethiopians who claim their ancestors were forced to convert from Judaism began a three-day hunger strike at a prayer house Tuesday to press the Israeli government to let them migrate to the Jewish state.

Between 1,000 and 1,800 people will pray and refuse food and drink for 72 hours, said Worku Nigussie, head of the Ethiopian Jewish community Association.

Israel's government announced in January that it would admit the last 20,000 Ethiopians who consider themselves Jews, known locally as Falash Mura, by the end of 2007. Officials are working to complete immigration procedures, said Yiftah Curiel, an official at the Israeli Embassy.

''We are asking the Israel government to keep its promise,'' Nigussie said.

Ethiopian immigration has sparked heated argument in Israel for years.

Judaism has a 2,000-year history in Ethiopia, and Falash Mura say they are embracing a religion their forebears were forced to give up for Christianity in the 19th century. Israel, however, does not recognize them as Jewish, and they do not qualify for Israeli citizenship until they convert to Judaism under an Orthodox Jewish process that takes up to two years.

Skeptics, including some in Israel's Ethiopian immigrant community, charge that at least some of the 20,000 people trying to emigrate to Israel took on the Falash Mura label as a means of escaping their poverty-stricken country.

But the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental body that deals with immigration, says the Falash Mura all qualify under Israeli government criteria, although it estimates their number at 14,000 to 17,000. About 20,000 already live in Israel.

Falash Mura have been leaving their communities and moving into holding camps in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, since 1991.

''Some members of my family have already gone to Israel. I have been waiting my turn to join them there, but I can't. I have been here in Addis Ababa for a year, living in a rented room, but I have run out of money and need a lasting solution for my problem,'' said Dasash Belihua, 29, one of the hunger strikers.