Jerusalem braces for millennium mayhem

Reuters/February 10, 1999
By Paul Holmes

Jerusalem -- "O ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus saith the Lord God unto these bones: Behold. I will cause breath to enter into you and ye shall live."

Joe Kuhn moved to Jerusalem nearly six years ago in the belief that God selected him to recite those words from the Old Testament book of Ezekiel when the time comes to raise the ancient Hebrew people from the dead.

With 2000 approaching, Kuhn, 43, from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, believes the resurrection is close at hand and that with it will start a 1,000-year reign of peace when he will sit at God's side as a high priest. Convinced of his calling, and of his sanity, he no longer leaves the confines of Jerusalem's walled Old City, fearful that he might miss his mission.

"That's why I came here, to open the graves of the Hebrew people," said Kuhn, who has survived by cleaning floors at the cheap hostel where he lives off the Via Dolorosa, the purported Way of the Cross that Christ took to his crucifixion.

"It was kind of hard for me to accept at first ... but I believe God chose me to do this," he told Reuters Television.

Israeli Police Set Up Millennium Task Force

Upward of 3 million foreign pilgrims are expected to flock to the Holy Land for the millennium, the vast majority of them mainstream Christians marking the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus.

But a minority will arrive convinced that the end of the world is nigh and eager for front row seats at the Second Coming on the Mount of Olives. The prospect that zealots with apocalyptic visions might use violence to try to hasten the final showdown has galvanized Israel's security services.

Mindful of the charged religious atmosphere in a city holy to Christians, Muslims and Jews, Israel has set up a special task force embracing members of the Shin Bet and Mossad intelligence services to tackle any acts of fanaticism.

Their biggest fear is of attempts to destroy Muslim shrines on Jerusalem's Temple Mount to make way for the building of a Jewish Third Temple as a prelude to the end of the world.

"We will take the most severe security measures ever taken in the state of Israel in the past 50 years to ensure that nothing we don't want to have happen occurs," Jerusalem's Israeli mayor, Ehud Olmert said.

"There will be an iron fist against any crazy cults that want to put the Middle East in flames just because of their ideas," he told reporters last month.

Israeli police traced 14 members of an American doomsday cult, six of them children, to rented properties near Jerusalem last month and swiftly deported them, charging that they were plotting violence and mass suicide to mark the millennium.

They were part of a larger group from the Concerned Christians cult who disappeared from Denver, Colorado, several months earlier. Their leader, Monte Kim Miller, who has prophesied that he will die in Jerusalem in 1999 and be resurrected three days later, remains at large.

The Jerusalem Syndrome

Weekly newspaper Kol Ha'ir recently quoted police sources as saying Israel had identified some 400 foreign cultists who posed a danger, a few dozen of them already in the country.

Georgia, a sprightly 75-year-old from Colorado, does not plan to be around when they show up. "It's like suicide," she said, advising pilgrims expected for the millennium to go anywhere but Jerusalem in 2000.

She left Jerusalem early this month after a three-month stay near the Old City's Damascus Gate, proclaiming the good news that the world would not end until 2020. The bad news is that the next two decades are going to be hell.

"There's going to be an earthquake. There's going to be war, and the Prophet Zechariah says that two thirds of the people right here will be cut off. This is a war zone," she said, standing by Damascus Gate.

"The first thing I noticed of the signs is the UFOs. The UFOs are really a sign of the end time," she said, referring to Unidentified Flying Objects she sees in the sky.

Yair Bar-El, Jerusalem district psychiatrist, is bracing for business as the millennium approaches. In 1982, Bar-El identified a disorder that afflicts a minority of pilgrims to the Holy City, calling it the Jerusalem Syndrome.

Some sufferers arrive mentally disturbed and convinced they are biblical figures, others come with apocalyptic beliefs. A third type arrive apparently sane but, overwhelmed by the city's religious magnetism, feel compelled to don white robes -- usually their hotel bed sheets -- and preach sermons.

Health Services Under Strain

Each year, around 150 tourists are treated for various manifestations of the syndrome at Jerusalem's Givat Shaul Mental Health Center. Bar-El recalls one, a Canadian Jew, who believed himself to be Samson the Brave and tried to shift the huge stones in the Wailing Wall, Judaism's most sacred site.

A second man he remembers was found by Palestinian police wandering through the desert wearing an animal skin. Israeli authorities were alerted and quickly identified him as another John the Baptist.

Unless they resort to violence, such people are usually treated for a few days and then sent home.

"It is not against the law for a person to feel he is King Solomon or to take a few jars of water and try to turn it into wine," said Victor Wadahakar, the deputy head of a special Israeli police unit that deals with Jerusalem's tourists.

Bar-El estimates that city psychiatrists will have to treat 600 to 800 pilgrims over the millennium period, which stretches roughly from Easter 1999 to Easter 2001, and he is concerned that the health services may be overwhelmed. "If all the people are crazy at the same time, we will have big problems."

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