In an unusual departure from the ultra-Orthodox stance, Israel's Ashkenazi chief rabbi has declared that anyone holding a conversion certificate issued by the State of Israel can register to be married in his place of residence. Yona Metzger's declaration, contained in a letter to the Knesset's Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, comes on the heels of converts' complaints that local rabbis were refusing to recognize them as Jews according to Jewish law and to register them for marriage.

In recent weeks, the organization ITIM (The Jewish Life Information Center), which represents conversion candidates in their dealings with the authorities, prepared to file a petition to the High Court of Justice on the matter.

In response to the complaints, Rabbi Metzger said that in instances in which rabbis refuse to register converts to be married, he would "authorize a substitute marriage registrar that would carry out what the law requires."

This is the latest development in a controversy which surfaced about a year and a half ago, after ultra-Orthodox rabbis in official positions announced there was no validity under Jewish law regarding conversions performed through religious conversion courts. Rabbi Avraham Sherman, for example, who is a judge on the Rabbinical High Court, ruled that thousands of conversions performed by the special religious conversion court (under official state sponsorship) were invalid.

The conversion court, which is identified with the national-religious camp, continues to issue conversion certificates, but in practice an increasing number of ultra-Orthodox rabbis are not recognizing them. The matter frequently comes to a head when the converts seek to register with their local rabbinical councils ahead of their weddings and are told that their conversion process was invalid, even if the converts observe Orthodox-religious tradition.

In June, Rabbi Metzger participated in an international conference held in Jerusalem for rabbis opposed to the state conversion system, where he heaped praise on Rabbi Sherman, calling him a "man of truth." Later, however, Metzger said that his words should not have been interpreted as him taking a position on the issue.

A source in Metzger's office said that although the plans to file a petition with the High Court were known at the time that Metzger wrote his letter to the Knesset committee, the chief rabbi was "determined to find a solution to the converts' problem."

ITIM's director, Rabbi Seth Farber, welcomed Metzger's position but asked whether the chief rabbi was simply advocating a temporary solution to the problem.