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Appeal for prayers exposes ideological rifts in Israel

JERUSALEM -- The question first appeared on a religious website: Is it right to join nationwide prayers for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon even if you despise him for forcing Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip?

Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu replied that it is not. It's wrong, he said, to offer prayers of hope if you believe otherwise in your heart.

The exchange -- posted shortly after Sharon had a massive stroke Wednesday -- highlighted the passions binding an unusual nexus of ultranationalist settlers, doomsday zealots, and Christian evangelicals such as Pat Robertson. In the span of a few years, their views of Sharon have swung from ally to betrayer of biblical prophecy and his people.

The appeal for prayers also served as a commentary on the ideological rifts among Jewish religious leaders: liberals who see promise in Sharon's legacy and hard-liners who curse it.

''Sharon was once the hero of the religious Orthodox and the right-wingers. He helped bring them into the power structure," said Oz Almog, who studies Israeli religious trends at Emek Yazre'el Academic College. ''Then he actually spit in their face. He told them, 'We don't need you anymore.' "

The ultimate torment, in many eyes, was the order to remove Jewish settlements and troops from Gaza, which was seized in 1967 in a war where Sharon led an armored division. Political hard-liners saw the Gaza withdrawal as a traitorous concession to Palestinians. Some conservative Christian and Jewish groups framed it in epic terms: an affront to their interpretations of Scripture and the duty to support a Jewish nation.

Many mocked the appeal for prayers by Israel's chief rabbis and Ehud Olmert, the acting prime minister.

''We aren't praying for this evil person," said Baruch Marzel, a leader in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank city of Hebron. ''He went against God. He went against the Bible. He betrayed his own country."

At the Western Wall -- revered by Jews as part of the second biblical temple -- thousands of worshipers packed the stone courtyard for prayers after sundown Friday.

Yona Metzger, one of Israel's chief rabbis, said a group of worshipers has maintained a round-the-clock vigil at the wall. He has also spoken to rabbis around the world to coordinate constant prayers. ''I hope that God will hear our prayers and blessings," Metzger said.

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