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The leader of a Jerusalem cult facing charges of child abuse, Elior Chen, told a rabbinical court yesterday that he is refusing to grant a get, or Jewish divorce, to the mother of his alleged victims. The woman claims that the marriage was illegitimate.

Chen and the woman, M., were taken out of their jail cells and brought before a rabbinical court in Jerusalem for a hearing on the woman's divorce request.

M., 40, initiated divorce proceedings in the rabbinical court. She is a key figure in the investigation, as she has agreed to testify as a state's witness against Chen.

Chen and several of his followers allegedly used knives, hammers and other instruments to abuse children as young as 3 and 4 years old in the ultra-Orthodox West Bank settlement of Betar Ilit in February and March 2008.

Chen allegedly hit the children in the head and face and burned their hands as part of a purification ritual. One child sustained permanent brain damage and is in a vegetative state, according to Israeli officials.

Chen fled to Brazil, but was extradited back to Israel last year.

M. and D., her legal ex-husband and the father of their children, were members of the cult led by Chen.

According to M.'s statements to investigators, Chen forced her to divorce D., whom he then banished from the cult. Afterward, Chen and M. were married in a makeshift rabbinical court, though the union was never reported to the proper authorities, M. claims.

By Jewish law, a marriage ceremony that is performed before two witnesses is valid and the woman would need to obtain a get in order to be allowed to marry again in the future.

Chen denied M.'s claims, insisting that the marriage was legitimate.

During the hearing, three witnesses testified on behalf of M. All three confirmed that they were in fact married, although none of the witnesses were present at the wedding ceremony. Another witness who took the stand was D., the ex-husband who has been questioned but not charged.

M., who has been held at the Neveh Tirtza women's detention center for the last two years, agreed to testify against Chen in exchange for leniency from the court.

The ultra-Orthodox community has been abuzz recently over a letter of support for Chen signed by a number of leading rabbis.

Sources close to the rabbis claim that they were unaware of the content of the letter, which praises Chen as a "fair, decent man" with a "pure heart." An aide to Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the 100-year-old leader of the Lithuanian stream of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox community, said the letter was a "forgery."

Last month, the Public Defender's Office notified the Jerusalem District Court that it objects to the appointment of one of its attorneys to represent Chen. This follows Justice Yoram Noam's decision to dismiss attorney Ariel Atari, who formerly represented Chen.