The highest court in Israel has asked a Baptist congregation to leave a Jewish area of Jerusalem before it builds a new sanctuary. Israel’s High Court made the request while reviewing a suit filed by the Narkis Street Baptist Church against a district planning commission, which last year refused to issue the church a building permit.

The Narkis Street church has been meeting in a tentlike structure since 1982 when its building was destroyed by arson. The congregation wants to replace its burned-out chapel with a $1 million facility, including a 400-seat auditorium, several classrooms, and office space.

The rebuilding plan was approved by Mayor Teddy Kollek, various municipal agencies, and the Jerusalem city council. But last fall, a district planning commission decided to allow only the building of a structure similar to the congregation’s original 60-seat chapel. The church then filed suit in Israel’s High Court.

Ultra-orthodox Jewish groups have demonstrated against the church’s plan to rebuild. Among other objections, they say the Baptists’ singing disrupts the Narkis Street neighborhood and that their parked cars clog the streets. Pat Hoaldridge, acting chairman of Southern Baptist representatives in Israel, says the High Court’s request for the church to move indicates the judges did not want to risk raising religious tensions further.

“You have to understand the climate in the country at this time,” Hoaldridge says. “The rise of religious feelings regarding what the people would call missionary activity … is playing a part in this case.”

The High Court said it would not rule on the church’s suit against the district planning commission for two months. The delay is designed to give the Narkis Street congregation and the Baptist Convention of Israel time to consider trading the church property for another site in Jerusalem.

Lawyers for the church have recommended that the Baptists move on the condition the church’s building permit will be approved as submitted. At press time, the congregation had not made a decision.

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