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updated 8/10/2004 9:10:19 PM ET 2004-08-11T01:10:19

Israel might “adopt” 6,000 Indians who claim Jewish ancestry, depending on a decision from the Chief Rabbinate, officials said Tuesday.

A delegation sent by Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar traveled to eastern India last week to investigate the group, called the “Bnei Menashe,” or children of Manasseh, who claim descent from the lost tribes of Israel, a spokesman for Amar said.

About 800 of the Bnei Menashe have been brought to Israel in the last decade by a group called Amishav, Hebrew for “my people returns.”

However, the program was halted by Interior Minister Avraham Poraz last year because of concern that refugees from developing nations would take advantage of dubious links to the Jewish people to gain entry.

“A year ago, Amishav approached the chief rabbi to investigate the issue,” said Shlomo Parvar, Amar’s spokesman. “He sent a delegation to India to find out if they are Jewish.”

The four-person team is expected to present its findings in two weeks, Parvar said.

According to Amishav, there is ample evidence to show that the Bnei Menashe are of Jewish descent. Many have relatives living in Israel. Customs, including family purity laws, mourning rights and the use of a lunar calendar, closely mirror Jewish traditions.

The Bnei Menashe, who number about 6,000, were originally animists who were converted to Christianity by British missionaries in the 19th century. In 1953, a tribal leader named Mlanchala had a dream in which his people would return to Israel. The tribe then adopted Jewish traditions.

However, their links to the Jewish people could not be proved, so they were not eligible to emigrate to Israel under Israeli law, which gives Jews the right to automatic citizenship.

“They have been trying to come to Israel for many years,” said Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum, a judge in the Israeli rabbinical court and a member of the delegation. “We know they are descendants of the Jewish people, and we want the state of Israel to help them move here.”

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