India's lost tribe recognised as Jews after 2,700 years

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With a cry of "Mazeltov" and a Rabbi's congratulatory handshake, hundreds of tribal people from India's north-east were formally converted to Judaism this week after being recognised as descendants of the 10 Lost Tribes exiled from Israel 2,700 years ago.

A rabbinical court, dispatched with the blessing of Israel's Chief Rabbi, travelled 3,500 miles to Mizoram on India's border with Burma to perform the conversions using a Mikvah - ritual bath - built specially for the purpose.

There were emotional scenes as the Oriental-looking hill people professed their faith, repeating the oath from Deuteronomy: "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One."

Over the next five years up to 7,000 members of the Bnei Menashe are expected to emigrate to Israel after years of pleading their case were met with official recognition.

Since the 1950s a small group of tribal people, who live in the jungle-clad hills that straddle Burma, India and Bangladesh, have claimed descent from the Lost Tribe of Menasseh, the remnants of which are said to have found their way to China, Thailand and north-eastern India.

Their claims gathered force in the 1980s when amateur anthropological studies purported to have discovered similarities between their ancient animist rituals and those of Old Testament Judaism. Although the claims are still treated with great scepticism by Mizoram's majority Christian population - and have never been examined by professional anthropologists - the Bnei Menashe are unshakeable in their belief. Not everyone in Mizoram is convinced, however. Where he sees"deep and extensive commonalities" between ancient Judaism and Mizo tribalism, others see Zionist ambition and plenty of wishful thinking. Local historians point out that the Mizo tribes were animists whose oral history and tradition was lost forever when the Welsh Presbyterian missionaries arrived in Mizoram in the late 1890s.

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