“City of Life,” a Messianic congregation and ministry in Sderot, is facing persecution with a pending court date in September 2022. KNI spoke to their pastor, Michael Biner, to understand what is happening and how we can pray for them.
“When the rocket attacks first started, in the early 2000s, we prayed over whether we should stay or leave the city,” Biner told KNI. “But since God told Abraham that he will save a city with at least ten righteous people, we decided we needed to stay and pray for the city.”
The congregation has operated in Sderot since 2000, when it started as a small group of young female Russian-speaking students meeting for prayer and Bible studies in their homes. Now they operate a bilingual Hebrew/Russian congregation, and since 2006 they also have a social outreach center, supporting holocaust survivors, new immigrants, and people suffering from traumas after the frequent rocket attacks in Sderot and Netivot. They have been able to operate “under the radar” for many years, helping hundreds of people and providing support without making too much noise about themselves.
But then, after 14 years of tireless work under rocket attacks supporting and helping the most vulnerable people, the anti-missionary organization Yad L’Achim discovered they exist in 2020. Perhaps because “City of Life” moved to a larger location in 2019 and put up a sign, so the city’s Chabad rabbi found out. He talked to their landlord to have them evicted, but was unsuccessful. “I don’t care who they pray to. Do you know how many people they’re helping?” was the landlord’s words, according to Biner. The rabbi then turned to Yad L’Achim.
Yad L’Achim turned to their followers, using inflammatory rhetoric, and accused “City of Life” of illegally taking advantage of vulnerable individuals to “force the gospel upon them.” Since it’s illegal in Israel to offer money or benefits in exchange for religious conversion, it has become a common accusation of Yad L’Achim against any kind of Messianic charity work. Biner told stories of harassments, people calling them to curse them, and even people illegally breaking into their facilities without permission.
Yad L’Achim even openly admitted to this trespassing in their article, stating that “a Yad L’Achim activist who went into their place discovered that besides a library and a large hall for meals, they have a stage and a pulpit and hundreds of chairs for people to come and listen to Christian preaching.” Biner pressed charges for trespassing, but the activist only received a one-month restraining order, and nothing more. “The judge said ‘be thankful you’re getting even that,’” Biner told KNI. “Not even a fine, nothing. And then this activist said to my face that they declare a war against us. He proceeded to tell the judge they want to arrange a demonstration against us. The judge helped him and told him who to turn to for demonstration permits! We left the courtroom baffled.”
In August 2020, Yad L’Achim arranged the promised demonstration, and drove busloads of people there. In an inflammatory article, Yad l’Achim wrote, “We organized a protest rally against the missionaries together with local Rabbis. During the demonstration, the Rabbis emphasized that Sderot will not rest until this epicenter of missionary activity will be closed with lock and bolt. One said, ‘The missionary terror done through soft speech and ways of deception is a lot more dangerous than the rockets from Gaza. Our spiritual iron dome is to expel idol worship from our city.’ We hope the missionaries will understand that their scam has been exposed and that they will leave the city.”
What they didn’t mention is what Biner told KNI – that Yad l’Achim tried to call many of the people that are receiving help from “City of Life,” and get them to join the rally, and they all refused “They are doing great work and helping us, why would we join a rally against them?” The rally was covered in local newspapers, who all quoted Yad l’Achim’s claims without reaching out to Biner for a comment. There was, however, another local newspaper that ran a more positive article about their work a few months later, where they described the charity work they are doing, and how they are being attacked by religious extremists.
And then the lawsuits arrived. One can’t for prove definitively that Yad L’Achim is necessarily behind these lawsuits, but it is remarkable that ever since the aforementioned rally, “City of Life” has been audited and examined and received lawsuits from all sides. It seems that Yad L’Achim used personal connections within these authorities and then “fires in all directions” to see what works.
A police complaint from the rabbi, claiming that they convert people in exchange for charity help was expected, but the police closed it quickly due to lack of evidence. The tax authority contacted them and examined their permits and tax records, but also there, their auditor and accountant closed down the issue quickly and easily. In fact, the ministry repelled almost all of these attacks without too much efforts, as they are following all laws and regulations and all their papers are in order. However, there is one issue that “caught” pertaining to their municipal license to operate a public non-profit in an industrial zone, and is still pending a court date in September. Their lawyer is confident that they will win, but it seems like this is the well-known strategy of the anti-missionaries: To intimidate and exhaust ministries and force them to put their money, work and energy on lawsuits and defending themselves rather than doing their actual job. It is a well-known Kafkaesque strategy, and it’s not the first time we have seen Yad L’Achim use it.
So how did the ongoing saga with the municipality start? Biner told KNI that when they moved to their current location in 2019, they made sure everything was in order. The municipal inspector asked them about their activity and their faith, and they told him everything. For one and a half years, they operated normally and everything was fine. Now, all of a sudden, there are “construction problems.” Biner is convinced someone is moving behind the scenes.
“Someone from the municipality came by a few days before the rally and asked to see the place and have a coffee with me. I showed him around, we had coffee, he said ‘you’re doing great work, keep it up,’ and that was it. Then, just after the rally, I get a letter from the municipality about construction problems with our building based on the ‘inspection’ a few days earlier. I was not aware that having a coffee with me was an inspection, nor that he found anything to complain about.”
When Biner went to the municipality for the first interrogation, he says they told him upfront that they intend to close them down because, quote, “a house of prayer is not fitting the zoning for an industrial zone.” Only now they thought of it? They had registered the place as a house of prayer to get an exemption of municipal taxes when they moved in there, and back then, no one had said anything about it being a zoning problem. On the contrary, an industrial zone by law includes public organizations such as houses of prayer, and the same street also has restaurants and escape rooms. The interrogations started getting worse. At the third interrogation, Biner sid they treated him as “a suspect” and started asking him questions that were not related to the case at all. “Do you receive a salary from this non-profit? How many employees do you have? Who are your donors? Who is doing the fundraising? How often do you go abroad for fundraising? How do people know about you?”
“At this point I stopped,” Biner said, “and I asked if this was according to protocol, and demanded to see that these were the questions he was supposed to be asking me. These questions had nothing with municipal planning or zoning to do. So I told him, ‘Please write in your protocol that Michael Biner says that these questions are unfair and have nothing to do with the case, but I will still answer them for the sake of transparency. I want this written in the protocol, so I can show it to the judge when the time comes. You are not the tax authority and you are not the non-profit registrar, and you have no business asking me these questions.’ Then they finally asked me some actual questions about the property.”
“City of Life” is now preparing an official request to the municipality for “exceptional use” to get a permit to use the building as a house of prayer. This request has to include confirmation by an architect that they have enough exits, a sprinkler system, emergency exits, parking, sewage, ventilation and so on. It’s a legitimate request to ask them to provide proof they have all that, of course. Biner’s problem is that they never asked for it upfront in 2019. Instead, they said nothing for years, and then suddenly sued them for not having provided it.
Currently, the municipality is suing them in court for “illegally having a house of prayer in an industrial zone without the exceptional use permit.” The letter summoning them to court was, just like the ‘inspection,’ done in a Kafkaesque way, so they wouldn’t know about it. The letter suing Biner personally and ‘City of Life’ arrived only 2 and a half weeks before the court date. The envelope showed signs of having been sent to the wrong address and gone around in the city back and forth for months.
“Our lawyers say it’s not a hard case, and that they have won cases much more difficult against municipalities. But this case is clearly wrapped in a political and personal cover. There are personal interests at play here,” Biner says. “Until the case is over, we won’t see the end of this. The municipality’s lawyer refuses to even meet with our lawyer. We are doing everything right, and our lawyer is trying to convince them to drop the case, but they refuse. We are thankful the judge agreed to postpone our court date to the end of September. It gives us time to finalize and submit the official request to the municipality for ‘exceptional use’ that they will, of course, reject. But then we can show the court that we are doing everything right.”
Their lawyer is hard at work proving that there are other non-profits working in the same zone who didn’t receive the same treatment, proving that the congregation is being singled out. They are confident that the municipality cannot win. It is, however, still a win for the anti-missionaries in the sense that they are exhausting the energy and the finances of the non-profit.
Yad L’Achim does this as a common tactic against many different organizations and congregations. This congregation in Sderot is not alone.
Please keep Michael Biner and City of Life Congregation in Sderot in prayer for this pending court date in September, but also keep in prayer all the other Messianic congregations and ministries that are under investigations and lawsuits which you won’t hear about. Also, pray for wisdom for the Israeli judges to see the deceptive ways in which Yad L’Achim is operating.