'The righteous will survive and the rest will perish'

Jerusalem could become a flashpoint for millennium violence when cult followers converge on the Holy City for the New Year. Sam Kiley reports

The (London) Times, December 13, 199

By any standards he is a handsome man. His clear brown eyes have an hypnotic effect on his audience, widening with emphasis and flashing with humour. In Hebrew or English he speaks with an easy poetry and beneath his trimmed moustache plays a smile. Why, then, is his talk of war? Not just any old war, but the war to end all wars, literally. He is on about the "end time", the Apocalypse, Armageddon, the Final Reckoning, when the righteous will survive and the rest of us perish horribly.

Gershon Solomon does not hang out on street corners wearing a sandwich board predicting that the end is nigh. Nor is he an anti-Semitic survivalist member of a far right American militia who has hidden himself in a bunker to prepare for the chaos of the Y2K bug. He is a Jew, an Israeli war hero who served in a commando unit and was crushed by a tank. And in bizarre synergy of religious fundamentalism he has a global following of Christian extremists. They, like him, believe that the Muslim shrine of the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, which sit on the site of the First and Second Jewish Temples, should be blown up and replaced with a Third Temple, on what the Jews call the Temple Mount, near the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem's Old City.

Stranger still is that anti-Semitic, white supremacist groups agree with many of Solomon's beliefs. But they do not believe that the Jews will be around to reap the benefits, having been wiped out for their failure to acknowledge Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago.

Only when the Third Temple is built can godliness be restored to the world and the Messiah come to save Earth and restore the Jews as a Kingdom of Priests serving in the Temple open to all nations.

Solomon might sound batty but he is not. He represents the almost acceptable face of millennial cults that believe that the end is very nigh indeed, probably some time in the next year or so. But he says he will not support any individual or group that unilaterally attacks the "abomination of the Dome of the Rock and the Mosque, which desecrated the Temple Mount". "The Israeli Government must do it. We must have a war. There will be many nations against us,but God will be our general. I am sure this is a test, that God is expecting us to move the Dome with no fear from other nations. The Messiah will not come by Himself, we should bring him by fighting," he says in the meeting room of his organisation, the Temple Mount Faithful and Land of Israel Faithful Movement, in central Jerusalem.

But why do Solomon, and fundamentalist Christians such as Sharon Kelley-Goree from Willowbrook, Texas, one of his disciples in his Jerusalem HQ, believe that the "end time" is approaching? They say the signs are there.

For the Jewish extremists, the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 was a "truly godly event". "That was the prophesied rebirth of Israel. Then there is the gathering in of the Jewish people, which Christians are assisting us in all over the world. The last thing that has to be done is the building of the Third Temple," says Solomon.

Kelley-Goree, and thousands of like-minded Christians, add back-up from the New Testament. She quotes Matthew xxiv,6: "Ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet."

Other references come so thick and fast that it is impossible to keep up. But the general thrust is that the signs of the end of the world include "floods in diverse places", earthquakes and other natural disasters, wars, and the "mark of the beast", most often believed to be bar coding or other technological innovations. Solomon's beliefs spur some groups to go a lot further.

The US Federal Bureau of Investigations has become so concerned about the domestic threat of violence in Jerusalem posed by millennial cults that it circulated a briefing to all special agents called "Project Meggido" after the Israeli mountain where, biblical predictions say, the forces of good and evil will clash in a final showdown. In English, Meggido transliterates as Armageddon.

"Cults of greatest concern to law enforcement are those that: (1) believe they play a special, elite role in the end time; (2) believe violent offensive action is needed to fulfil their end time prophecy; (3) take steps to attain their beliefs," the report says.

For the Americans the threat comes mostly from far-right Christian groups with connections to neo-Nazis, like the Christian Identity movement. Yisrael Bill Hawkins, the leader of the House of Yaweh, has convinced his followers that he is a "witness" who will announce the second coming of the Messiah, and then be murdered by Satan.

Fortunately for the Israelis, Hawkins's followers are at present holed up in Abilene, Texas, clutching their shotguns as they wait for the end time. Likewise, Robert Millar, the leader of the Eleom City Christian Identity group, has branches in Oklahoma and Missouri, where followers are believed to be stockpiling weapons.

More worrying are groups such as the Concerned Christians. Led by Monte Kim Miller, 14 members of this doomsday cult were arrested and expelled from Israel in January. Miller, who disappeared from Denver, Colorado, last October after one of his predictions for the end of the world came to nothing, believes that he also is one of the "witnesses" who will foretell the end time and the coming of the Messiah. He has plans to get himself killed in Jerusalem, to rise from the dead three days later and, in so doing, to set off a paroxysm of violence that will lead to the end of the world as we know it, the rebuilding of the Temple Mount and the Second Coming of Christ.

An international security operation has been keeping a close eye on his followers. Sixteen were identified in Greece trying to get back into the Holy Land; the Greek authorities were trying to expel them. But security sources fear that these men and women - all Americans - were probably a strategic feint to draw attention away from others who were sneaking into Israel unknown and unnoticed.

The Israeli security services and the Shabak (secret police) have set up an agency to monitor the potentially violent cults that they fear are planning to hasten the coming of the Messiah by an act of violence in Israel, probably an attack on the Dome of the Rock. Their problem is greater than the one faced by America, where another cult like the Branch Davidians could spring up and cause a Waco-style confrontation with a bloody end. They may even face another bombing such as the one that took place in Oklahoma. But such incidents will not set off a war pitching Muslim against Jew against Christian. Israel is, after all, a nuclear power, and Iran, Iraq and Syria all have weapons of mass destruction. Across the world, governments are deeply aware that if someone granted Solomon's wish to see the Dome of the Rock - Islam's third-holiest site, from where the Prophet Muhammad ascended into Heaven - "removed", Islamic rage would be difficult to contain and a violent chain reaction inevitable. "It hardly bears thinking about. Someone could set off a paroxysm of violence that would be very hard to control," says David Rosen, the former Chief Rabbi of Ireland who now heads the Anti-Defamation League in Israel and was until recently an adviser to the secret anti-cult unit set up by the Israelis that has been working closely with the FBI, the British Special Branch, Irish Intelligence and Interpol.

He is anxious to draw the distinction between harmless Christian believers who think that the end time is approaching and those who might try to help it on its way. Ed Daniels, an American "end timer" who moved to Bethany, on the western edge of the Mount of Olives, a few months ago lives in genteel poverty and spends his time in prayer, attempting to convert his Muslim neighbours and waiting for the end of the world.

"It's going to happen so soon, why should we do anything to make it happen sooner? We believe in love, not destruction," he says.

Dr Rosen says: "There are some violent groups, all of them led by charismatic individuals who may well have people already here. Many have ideological connections with Jewish neo-messianic groups such as the Temple Mount Faithful."

Supporters of the Temple Mount Faithful include Clyde Lott, a Texan farmer, who will bring red heifers to the Holy Land early next year. A fundamentalist Christian and farmer, Lott knows his Bible. Red heifers, burnt and mixed in with holy water, will be an essential part of the purification ceremony during the opening of a Third Temple. Clearly he believes someone, or something, is going to take the Dome down. Most end timers have been drawn to the concept only recently. The confluence of events, the round number of 2000, the Y2K bug and a hubristic belief that they are something special and will be taken up in the "rapture" as angels is an irresistible brew for many.

But Solomon has spent every waking moment of the past 32 years dedicated to rebuilding the Temple. He has already prepared special garments for the priests and replicas of various vessels made according to biblical prescriptions. Now, he says ominously: "We should expect to see some very godly events in the next few months."

His crusade began when, in an unreported battle on the Golan Heights before the 1967 Six-Day War, he was run over by an Israeli tank while trying to save a wounded comrade. Tons of metal crushed his legs and he lay on the ground for hours until a Syrian unit sneaked closer to kill him. Then, miraculously they ran way. A United Nations officer based in the area later told him in hospital that he had spoken to the Syrians, who said they were going to kill the young paratroop lieutenant, when they saw him surrounded by a pool of white light and angels.

On the fourth day of the Six-Day War, his unit took the Dome of the Rock when the Jordanians fled. He got a lift from hospital in a Jeep, and entered the sacred building, which houses the rock on which Abraham offered his son for sacrifice.

"We wept like children, and our tears covered the rock like rain. We moved like the wind from place to place on the Temple Mount," he says, his eyes brimming with tears at the memory.

"Then an Arab guide, who was very well dressed and spoke with an English accent, came to us. He showed us around, not the Islamic places, but where the Temple should be. He said he had come because it was rightfully ours and that we had very little time, that we should start building the Third Temple the next day. Then, like a shadow, he disappeared. We thought that he must have been an angel."

The Temple was not rebuilt. Moshe Dayan, then Israeli Defence Minister, ordered the Star of David to be taken down from the top of the Dome, and he withdrew his forces from the Muslim shrine for fear of provoking his Arab enemies still further.

"That was a terrible, sinful act. Since that day I have known that my mission is to rebuild the temple," vows the ageing paratrooper, who last week was thwarted by the Israeli police in his attempts to gain access to the Dome of the Rock/Temple Mount for the annual Chanukkah prayers. But he did manage to march through the Old City, past Palestinian shopkeepers and other Jews, as Sharon Kelley-Goree blasted away on a shofar, an animal-horn trumpet of the type used by Joshua to bring down the walls of Jericho, which is played on sacred occasions.

So, in a quiet moment, I spoke to Kelley-Goree, who also had tales of a series of miracles that provided the funds for her to get to Israel on five occasions; one involved a donation of $1,700 from a mysterious road-builder she met in a motel lobby in Texas.

If the Messiah cannot come until the Third Temple has been built, and Armageddon is unleashed on us all, did she think that God was going to do this for us? Would the Dome come down in a quake, or be taken down piece by piece? Or was someone going to help things along? "I know there are people who will bring it down in one, big, moment," she whispers.

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