A date with death

The Guardian, October 27, 1999

While most people will be partying in the new millennium, some will be preparing for doomsday. Police across the world are increasing surveillance of religious cults and preparing for another Waco. This week, Israel got tough, deporting 21 members of a Christian sect for posing 'a danger to public safety'. James Meek on the difficulties of sorting the dangerous from the merely eccentric

David Koresh was sitting inside his fortified compound, talking on the phone to Henry from the FBI. They had a problem. Each thought the other was unhinged. Henry thought that Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidian sect, was a paranoid schizophrenic. Peering out at the armoured vehicles gathered by federal agents on the Waco fields, Koresh believed Henry was crazy to ignore the word of God.

"One of the things, one of the things is I don't understand the scriptures like you, honestly, I just don't," said the FBI man.

Not surprisingly, negotiations broke down; after a 51-day siege, the authorities stormed the building. Seventy-four people died in the conflagration that followed. Exactly two years later, in Oklahoma City, a young Gulf War veteran called Timothy McVeigh, his head swimming with a toxic blend of Bible prophecy, racial supremacy and world government conspiracy theory, marked the anniversary in his own way. The bomb he set outside the federal building in Oklahoma City killed 168 people.

The governments of the US, Britain and Israel are determined to make sure it doesn't happen again. The big anniversary is coming up: 2000 years since the birth of Jesus Christ. For hundreds of millions of Christians around the world, that is what the millennium means - not a 10-day booze-up, a Dome or a ride on a big wheel, but 2000AD, the Year of Our Lord. For many of them, it means something more - a sign of the imminence of the second coming of Christ, the beginning of his thousand-year reign on earth, as foretold in the Bible. For a handful it may be the moment when they become part of the Bible story in which they so fervently believe. That's what has the police worried.

In the US, heightened surveillance is being carried out on the scores of fringe religious sects and religiously influenced armed militia groups spread out among the villas of California and hilltop bunkers in the Bible Belt. At the weekend, British police officers will be briefed by US colleagues on how to avoid the mistakes the FBI made at Waco. And in Israel, expected to be the destination for hordes of Christian pilgrims as Christmas and New Year approach, they are getting tough.

On Monday, 21 members of two Christian groups, the House of Prayer and Solomon's Temple - three of them Britons - were arrested by police as posing "a danger to public safety". They will be deported tomorrow - the third time Christians have been expelled from a nervous Holy Land this year. Perhaps the Israelis are right to be cautious. Their most fearful vision is a terrible one: a clash or a conspiracy bringing together Christians convinced that the foretold violent, chaotic time of tribulation preceding the second coming has begun; ultra-radical Jews who yearn to see the ancient Temple of Jerusalem restored; and Muslims, seeking to protect the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest place in Islam.

But are the Israeli authorities, in fact, in danger of provoking the very crisis they are trying to prevent? By arresting and deporting visible Christian groups - most of whose members showed no inclination to violence, self-inflicted or otherwise - they risk heightening the sense of persecution in unstable, unpredictable loners such as Timothy McVeigh: the outsiders. The quiet, unremarkable ones. The ones who slip through the net. "I'm not sure these identified groups are going to be the source of any trouble," said Brenda Brasher, an associate of the Boston-based Centre for Millenial Studies. "I think the greatest source of trouble is going to be the lone individual, like Timothy McVeigh, who identifies with these groups but doesn't belong to them. In this Israeli situation, these loners who read about the expulsions - who knows how they're going to react? I don't want to fuel that sort of paranoia."

[Brasher seems to align herself with academics who frequently apologized for destructive cults. She has shared a news conference with Lonnie Kleiver a recommended by Scientology as a "religious resource"].

Brasher knows the leaders of the two latest groups to be arrested, Brother David and Brother Solomon, well. Both, she feels, are at worst harmless, at best generous workers for the poor - like the group of mainly Irish Roman Catholic pilgrims turned away from Haifa earlier this month. "We're talking about Jerusalem here," she said. "It's a city with deep religious meaning to three of the largest religions in the world, and not to expect religiously fervent believers to turn up there is like being in Disneyland and not expecting any tourists."

The first group to be expelled from Israel, Concerned Christians, was less benign. Fourteen members of the cult, including six children, were deported by plane to Toronto in January after police raided the two homes in Jerusalem where they were staying. No charges were laid, but police said the cult had been planning acts of violence in the Old City in the days leading up to the new year, and might have staged a mass suicide attempt. The cult was established by Monte Kim Miller in Denver in 1980. Sixteen years later, he announced that he was God's spokesman; shortly before his 14 followers surfaced in Israel, he announced he would die on the streets of Jerusalem in December 1999 and be reincarnated three days later. He also predicted an earthquake would destroy Denver in October 1998. The non-appearance of the foretold apocalypse failed to discourage his core followers, who had already left their jobs, sold up and quit the city. Miller's current whereabouts are unknown, and dozens of his adherents are still missing.

The apparent menace of Concerned Christians, and the heavily armed, anti-government, white supremacist Biblical messages given out by such groups as Christian Identity - holed up with flamethrowers and machine guns in the Ozark mountains in eastern Oklahoma - contrasts with the mildly eccentric good works of Brother David and Brother Solomon. They live, work and were arrested on the Mount of Olives, where according to the gospel of the apostle Matthew, Jesus sat and ran through the details of his return journey - being careful not to say exactly when he was coming. He simply said that beforehand there would be wars, rumours of wars, famines, pestilences and earthquakes in diverse places - allowing bold prophets to confidently predict his imminent arrival in most years since his crucifixion. There have been wars, a famines, pestilences and earthquakes ever since.

Brother David, 58, from Syracuse in New York, had renounced his US citizenship and described himself as a "world citizen". He was a familiar figure among the poor Palestinian community on the Mount of Olives, campaigning for low-cost housing and handing out old clothes. He did not believe 2000 would see the beginning of the end of the world as we know it. Brother Solomon, who moved to Jerusalem via Brooklyn and his Jamaican birthplace, was a 65-year-old who used to move around the streets of the city in a pinstriped suit. He was an eschatologist, a practitioner of the esoteric science of poring over the Bible, seeking a hidden message written in some form of numerical code. But he was, according to Brasher, a relaxed eschatologist.

"He'd say: 'Maybe 2000, maybe 2001.' I asked him what would happen if 2001 came and nothing happened. He said: 'I'll go back and recalculate. Obviously I'd have missed something."

There is an ambivalence in the world's evangelical movement when they speak of the coming anniversary. To be an evangelical - and there are thought to be a million in Britain - is to believe utterly in the truth of the Bible, and to believe in that means to believe that Jesus will come again. Yet they strive to distance themselves from the idea that to believe in a second coming is to give it a date, let alone take action to try to precipitate it.

Some radical US websites - the Internet has become a key medium for extremist groups to spread their messianic message - predict that a central part of the time of tribulation will be a wholesale slaughter of Christians by Muslims. The authorities dread action in Jerusalem's old city to try to provoke the Muslim community.

Christine Darg, an American living in Hereford, runs an evangelical organisation called Daystar International, which organises trips to Israel to "pray for the peace of Jerusalem". The organisation's website, www.olivetree.org, has a webcam trained on the gates of the ancient city walls, allowing browsers to be virtual pilgrims - and perhaps to catch the second coming.

Darg said she sympathised with the Israeli authorities. She would be with her group in Jerusalem as the new year approached, praying peacefully. If Jesus came, it would be great, and if he didn't, they'd still believe in him.

She said she had never encountered anyone suffering from the "Jerusalem syndrome," the mental condition said to afflict believers who identify themselves with the messiah or some other actor in an apocalyptic scenario. "I've a ministry out there in Israel, and I speak every year at the largest Christian conference in Israel. This year at that conference a doctor made a statement to the effect that none of the Christians attending has ever been diagnosed with Jerusalem syndrome."

Darg said she believed the creation in 1948 of the state of Israel was a clear sign that, for this generation, the second coming might really be at hand. "All we know is that the coming of the Lord is near. This world, with its governmental system, can't continue like this forever. As Star Trek tells it, and a lot of science fiction. He will return, and the Bible clearly teaches he will rule bodily for 1,000 years. This is what believers have believed for 1,000 years. What's so strange is that now this doctrine sounds like it's off the wall, when it is orthodox Christianity."

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