Jerusalem -- Peruvian housekeeper Ghustina Castro converted to Judaism in 1996, with the help of a non-Orthodox rabbi, but was not recognized as a Jew by Israel.
Israel's Supreme Court ruled Monday, after five years of deliberation, that Castro and many converts like her could be eligible for citizenship.
The ruling could affect hundreds of thousands of people living in Israel in a kind of religious and national limbo.
Jews are eligible for automatic Israeli citizenship. The judges strongly suggested that the Interior Ministry rule within 45 days that Castro and 14 other petitioners are Israeli because of their conversions to Judaism. It said the sequence of conversion and immigration is irrelevant.
Castro was converted in Israel, while others studied in Israel and completed their conversions abroad.
The underlying issue strikes at the heart of a dispute over the nature of the Jewish state, which pits the Orthodox Jewish establishment against the Reform and Conservative movements. The liberal streams of Judaism have a small following in Israel but are the two largest in the United States.
The ruling by the 11-judge panel did not grant the official status long sought by the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel, but their rabbis said it brought them one step closer.
Interior Minister Avraham Poraz indicated he would adopt the spirit of the ruling and recognize the converts as citizens. He said he would like a "large population" in Israel to be able to convert. "The Conservative and Reform movements must be allowed to perform conversions," he told Channel 2 TV.
In recent years hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union have immigrated to Israel, as spouses or relatives of Jewish immigrants. Liberal activists say many would convert to Judaism if given a reasonable avenue. Orthodox rabbis, however, demand that converts adopt an Orthodox lifestyle.
Lawmaker Shlomo Benizri, representing an Orthodox Jewish party, warned Poraz against granting citizenship to the petitioners, saying Judaism is not a religion of "missionaries" and must be preserved with strict religious laws as it has been since ancient times.