Fearing Millennial Action, Israel Is Ready to Oust Christians

NY Times, October 26, 1999
By Joel Greenberg

JERUSALEM -- Fearing a possible outburst of millennium-related violence, Israeli authorities rounded up members of two Christian groups living on the slopes of the Mount of Olives on Monday and ordered 20 of them deported.

In an overnight swoop, dozens of police officers descended on Eizariya, an Arab suburb of Jerusalem also known by its biblical name, Bethany, and arrested 26 men, women and children, mostly Americans from New York and Denver.

Six Christians were later released and the rest were detained for deportation, on the grounds that their visas had expired. They were given 72 hours to appeal the deportation orders.

Their names were not immediately released, but the interior ministry said they included 13 Americans, three Britons, three Jamaicans and one Australian.

The police said they had only vague suspicions about the groups, which were led by two men known as Brother David and Brother Solomon, who had been living quietly on the Mount of Olives for several years, promoting their visions of a millennial apocalypse.

"We had a general assessment that under certain conditions they could pose a danger to public safety," said Rafi Yaffe, a police spokesman. "There was nothing specific." It was the third time this year that the Israeli authorities, concerned that apocalyptic cults might be planning acts of violence to coincide with the millennium, have ordered Christian groups out of the country.

Security officials are said to be worried that members of extreme Christian groups could kill themselves or others, or even try to blow up Islamic shrines on Jerusalem's Temple Mount in cooperation with Jewish radicals, in an attempt to hasten an Arab-Israeli war they see as a necessary prelude to the Second Coming of Christ.

Last January, 14 members of a Denver-based group called Concerned Christians were rounded up and expelled after officials said they were planning to commit suicide or die in a shootout with police in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Earlier this month, 25 members of a Christian group from Ireland who said they were on a pilgrimage were turned away at the port of Haifa. Israeli officials maintained that they were members of an extremist sect, but their rough expulsion drew sharp protests from Ireland, where they are known as a Roman Catholic group that helps the mentally disabled.

Leaders of the two groups affected by Monday's crackdown are not known to have preached violence. They and their followers lived in rented apartments in Eizariya, choosing the Mount of Olives because of scriptural passages they believe mark it as the site of Jesus' return.

Brother David, 58, is a born-again former preacher from Syracuse, N.Y., and has been in Israel since 1980. Brother Solomon, 65, whose real name is Winston George Churchill Rose, was born in Jamaica and lived in Brooklyn, and leads a group of African-American Seventh Day Adventists.

Palestinian neighbors of Solomon's group said that members would often gather on Saturdays and hold prayer meetings punctuated by loud singing and drum-beating. David's followers would hold similar services, singing spirituals and speaking in tongues, witnesses said.

Put on a bus with her four children Monday by police, a follower of Brother Solomon would only confirm that she was from New York. "I don't want to say anything," she said.

As the bus pulled out of the police station, the family and another detained woman aboard lowered the window shades to hide themselves from photographers.

The latest arrests, which came as Israel is advertising itself as the prime destination for Christian pilgrims in the year 2000, highlighted the risk of driving away thousands of potential visitors: ordinary Christians who believe in the likelihood of a millennial upheaval but have no plans to hasten it themselves.

Gershom Gorenberg, an Israeli journalist who is writing a book about millennial groups, said that the police had a public duty to give a fuller account of their actions against perceived threats of Christian violence.

"I think there are real reasons for concern," Gorenberg said. "I also think that the Israeli police have a responsibility not to create a situation in which it seems like Christians in general are suspect. They have to be more open in explaining their reasons for telling a particular person or group: you have to leave."

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