A human rights group is offering a gay tour of Israel to coincide with this year’s WorldPride in Jerusalem.

The expedition, organised by the New Israel Fund (NIF), will explore the “complexities, beauty and challenges of ancient and modern Israel.”

Participants will meet Israeli lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activists and will also attend the gay pride parade from August 6-12 2006.

The chief executive of the NIF in the UK, Alan Bolchover, told the Jewish Chronicle, “There are tours organised for teenagers, seniors, singles, divorcees, religious and secular groups. Why not gays and lesbians?”

Jerusalem Open House (JOH), lead organiser of Jerusalem WorldPride, has reported that plans for the event are going well.

The organisation claims over 1000 clergy of all faiths have signed a petition in support of Jerusalem WorldPride, speaking out after various conservative religious groups Christian, Jewish and Muslim called for a halt to LGBT events in the Holy City.

“The religious right does not own the mantle of holiness.” said Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, co-chair of the WorldPride’s North American organising committee and spiritual leader of the Beth Simhat Torah congregation, the synagogue for the New York metropolitan area’s 200,000 gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Jews.

“Jerusalem, a living, holy city, a pilgrimage site for people of many faiths and many beliefs, increases in holiness when all are welcome within her walls. During WorldPride, we will unite as one community to declare that Jerusalem belongs to all of us,” he said.

Hagai El-Ad, chief executive of JOH said: “The message sent from Jerusalem WorldPride will echo throughout the world, redefining our community’s identity, faith and vision.

“In these times of intolerance and conflict, this is a historical opportunity to proclaim the moral values of our community from the home of three of the world’s great religions. We encourage LGBT leaders, community members and our allies from around the world to attend.”

But not all sections of the Jewish or Israeli community are supportive of the parade,

Religious leaders and political groups say the event is offensive as it is being deliberately held in an area with strict religious views which reject homosexuality.

The head of the ultra-religious Shas party, Eli Yishai, said: “The homosexuals are poisoning the Jewish people’s capital.”

Last year, Israel’s two chief rabbis, the Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Churches and Muslim leaders produced a joint statement on the event claiming it “will offend the very foundations of our religious values and the character of the Holy City.”

And a letter written to the JC today shows other areas of opposition, “The city of Jerusalem has myriad problems ranging from widespread poverty to suicide bombers and now faces the threat of annihilation by Iran. The last thing Jerusalem needs is a provocative march like the “Gay Parade” planned for August this year.

“The proposed march is opposed by the vast majority of Jerusalemites of all creeds as antithetical to the biblical ethos. It will inevitably exacerbate tensions and, one fears, lead to strife. Is it, therefore, ethical or responsible for outside elements such as the New Israel Fund to support this parade?

“If the NIF wishes to retain public respect and support, it would surely be wise to refrain from such risqué and counterproductive actions and confine itself to real and laudable charity work such as the relief of poverty.”

It will be the second WorldPride, following the 2000 celebration in Rome.