Orthodox rabbis overseas have been converting people in exchange for bribes, Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar charged yesterday.

"We've received testimony about some private rabbis who do conversions in exchange for money," he told a special meeting of the Knesset Immigration Committee that he hosted in his Jerusalem office yesterday. He said the problem exists all over - in North America, South America and Europe.

Citing reports he had received of one Orthodox rabbi who was paid $1 million for a conversion, he added, "That's exceptional, but there are also conversions for less than $1 million." He offered no further specifics.

The allegations were part of Amar's attempt to defend a controversial policy that the Chief Rabbinate and the Interior Ministry adopted about two years ago. Under this policy, they do not recognize conversions by Orthodox rabbis overseas unless the rabbis belong to specific rabbinical organizations. As a result, several Orthodox converts have been denied the right to immigrate under the Law of Return in recent years.

MKs Yohanan Plesner (Kadima ) and Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz ) had requested the meeting in response to last month's Haaretz report about this policy, which essentially extends the rabbinate's power to Orthodox communities overseas.

The High Court of Justice has ruled that the ministry must recognize people who underwent Reform or Conservative conversions overseas as Jews. But no such ruling was ever issued on Orthodox conversions; hence the rabbinate and the ministry retain discretion.

At the meeting, Horowitz pointed out the irony: The Orthodox rabbinate is thus actually pushing prospective immigrants to opt for Conservative or Reform conversions instead.

Rabbi Joel Tessler, who heads a large Orthodox community in Potomac, Maryland, also addressed the meeting. He is one of the rabbis whose conversions the rabbinate refuses to recognize, and he said there was no justification for this.

Attorney Daniel Solomon of the Interior Ministry outraged Plesner when he was unable to produce a list of which overseas rabbis are recognized and which are not. But he insisted there is nothing new in the ministry's policy of consulting the rabbinate on this issue.

Amar revealed that a team of jurists and representatives of various government offices are now trying to draft a policy on Orthodox conversions overseas that would withstand a legal challenge. But he stressed that the decision to recognize American and Canadian conversions by selected rabbinical courts had the full consent only of the Rabbinical Council of America, a leading American organization of Orthodox rabbis.

Many Orthodox rabbis, especially from the Modern Orthodox movement, do not belong to the RCA, and they say this decision was aimed primarily at reducing their power. But Amar insisted that the decision's sole purpose was to create an "orderly" conversion process run by "worthy" rabbis.

Committee chairman Danny Danon (Likud ) accepted this claim, saying, "We all want to see more Jews immigrating to Israel, but we aren't willing to accept conversion over the Internet or by mail."

Meanwhile, the Canadian convert who was the subject of last month's Haaretz report has made some progress: After being told he was ineligible for citizenship because the rabbinate doesn't recognize the Orthodox rabbi who converted him, Thomas Dohlan received an immigrant's certificate and an Israeli identity number when he arrived here with his Israeli wife and four children later last month, apparently due to Haaretz's report. But he still hasn't received his all-important identity card, and yesterday, the Interior Ministry again refused to issue it.

Rabbi Seth Farber of ITIM, the Jewish Life Information Center, who has been helping the family, said in response to Amar's statement yesterday that "the decision not to recognize all Orthodox conversions in the Diaspora because of a few cases of local corruption is utterly out of proportion. Clear criteria must be set under the Law of Return as to what constitutes a recognized community, and then we should rely on the local professionals. The Interior Ministry doesn't have enough information to determine what is or isn't a recognized community."