Beliefnet
JERUSALEM, Feb. 4 (AP) - Israel's leading ultra-Orthodox Jewish blocs have thrown their support behind hard-liner Ariel Sharon, lending the front-runner an additional boost in Tuesday's election for prime minister.

Sunday was the final day of official campaigning, and Sharon held a seemingly invincible lead of up to 20 percentage points over the beleaguered incumbent, Ehud Barak, according to opinion polls.

Newspapers representing Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox parties, composed of Jews of European background, published announcements from the religious leadership calling on people to vote for Sharon. The papers did not identify him by name, but called him the candidate ``who will bring the country closer to Torah,'' the Jewish holy book.

The ultra-Orthodox community makes up about 9 percent of Israel's voters and tends to vote in blocs based on the choice of the religious leadership.

Sharon also received backing from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which draws its membership mostly from Sephardic Jews of Middle Eastern origin.

In his weekly sermon Saturday evening, Ovadiah Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Shas party, called on followers to support Sharon. Shas is the third largest party in Israel's parliament.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews traditionally vote for conservative candidates, though the religious parties have been willing to take part in coalition governments regardless of who is elected prime minister.

Sharon denied that he made promises to the ultra-Orthodox establishment in return for their support. ``There is no agreement and nothing was promised,'' Sharon said in a terse statement.

However, Israeli media reported that Sharon had assured the religious parties in a verbal agreement that he would preserve a controversial law that effectively allows ultra-Orthodox seminary students to avoid military service.

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