Christian pilgrims seeking apocalypse alarm some Israelis

September 28, 1999

n.jpg> (CNN) -- While the approach of the year 2000 is drawing Christian pilgrims from across the world to visit Biblical holy lands in Israel and the West Bank bringing much-anticipated tourism revenue to the region, it has also drawn visitors the Israeli hosts prefer would stay home -- those who hope to witness the end of the world.

Among the crowds of Christians traveling to the Middle East ahead of the new year, a minority of fundamentalist followers are bringing with them visions of a second coming of Jesus -- an event that, according to New Testament prophesy, signifies the apocalypse.

"We're waiting daily for the Messiah to return," says one Christian woman. "There will be an apocalypse somewhere in the Middle East. There will be an Armageddon," says another.

That kind of talk alarms some Israelis, who as Jews don't share a hope for the return of the Christian savior and are concerned that radical Christians might destroy religious sites holy to Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem, setting off bloodshed in the disputed city.

When a group of Zionist Christians converged this week in Israel for an annual festival, some militant Jews greeted them with shouts of "Danger! Danger, Missionaries!" and "Jesus is dead!"

"The implicit message of the (Christian) apocalyptic scenario is that we're the target, that world war is going to happen here, according to the fundamentalist agenda," said Yossi Klein-Halevy, of the Jerusalem Report. The umbrella group that sponsored this week's Christian gathering, the International Christian Embassy, urged Israelis to welcome millennium pilgrims, saying that while "the Christian Embassy shares with many others a firm belief in the 'coming of the Lord,' ... the vast majority of Christians do not take seriously anyone who may be seeing with certainty either 2000 or 2001 as the date for Christ's return."

3 million tourists expected

Israel's Tourism Ministry predicts more than 3 million tourists will visit Israel and the West Bank during 2000 and 2001 to mark the start of Christianity's third millennium.

Police have set up a special task force to deal with members of messianic sects they fear may try to use violence to realize their apocalyptic visions of the end of the world.

Earlier this year, Israeli authorities deported several members of a Christian doomsday cult based in Denver..

'Peaceful intentions'

The Christian Embassy supported Israel's "right and duty to take all reasonable precautions and make informed assessments of any potential security risks on an individual basis."

However, the group said, "Israelis and others need to look past the dissemination of negative images and recognize these pilgrims are coming with peaceful intentions."

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak broke with his predecessors and turned down an invitation to address the group, which was a fervent backer of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Some see it as ironic that many Jews have shunned the Christian groups, since the visitors are among Israel's staunchest supporters. Some Christians view the existence of the state of Israel as a precursor to the 'second coming.'

Though the current government snubbed them, the group's leader says their political support may be sought again, especially as Palestinians demand a share of Jerusalem in final peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

"The days might come when they will need the support of the Christian world on some of these issues," said International Christian Embassy Executive Director Johannes Luckhoff.


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