Doomsday cults leave Rome indifferent, Vatican wary

AFP, December 14, 1999

As Romans put the last spin on preparations for the night ushering the third millennium, medieval fears of the future that abounded 1000 years ago are strikingly absent from the baggage they will carry into the next century. But while Rome city officials are unfazed by talk about the possible activities of doomsday cults or freak attacks on computer systems, the Vatican is casting a wary eye as millions are expected to attend Holy Year celebrations.

Not unlike what happened in the 10th century, this year's total eclipse, flooding in Vietnam, a devastating cyclone in India and killer earthquakes in Turkey and Greece have caused hysterical reactions in some circles, said Milan psychotherapist Luciano Di Gregorio.

But there is no general fear in the runup to the next millennium, he added. Di Gregorio organized a workshop on millennium angst in Tuscany earlier this month but, with only five people attending, its purpose was obviously lost on potential patients.

"Maybe there will be more fears of the future as we get closer to the date," Di Gregorio said.

But given a more laid-back Church attitude before the end of the second millennium, "people appear to be reassured," he added. "The Church handles the change of the century like a collective rite, producing calm and peace." Not so in 999 when, historians agree, the Church exploited doomsday fears as Europe was in the midst of the Dark Ages with widespread anarchy, brutal warlords fighting for dominance, famines and epidemics.

For today's Vatican, the impact of doomsday cults on millennium preparations can practically be disregarded.

"Let's not exaggerate," Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Sacred Congreation for the Doctrine said as early as 1996. "In fact, we are already past the year 2000.

"Monk Dionysius Exiguus made a mistake when he calculated the Christian calendar. Therefore we should not exaggerate or mystify the millenarians," he said, referring to historical studies that the year 2000 will in fact be 2006 as Jesus was born six years earlier than Christian tradition has it. While Italian officials downplay fears of doomsday cult attacks, Roman police are on the lookout.

For the time being there is no sign of a threat to computers or by doomsdayers, said Mariella Gramaglia, a government official in charge of the 2000 computer bug. Interior ministry spokesman Vincenzo Granado rules out any massive arrival in Rome or in other cities of religious sects or fanatics for Holy Year celebrations.

Special attention would be paid to maintain public order during next year's festivities marking the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Christ but the ministry so far has not spotted any signs of trouble, he said. An interior ministry document however has warned that "a lone freak may decide to strike out to send a message to humanity using Italy as a battleground."

According to ministry statistics, Italy counted 137 religious sects and other cults last year. identified as "syncretists, false churches, messianists, esoterists, occultists and satanists." But other sources put their number closer to 800, primarily in Turin, Rome and the Venice region.

Between members and sympathizers, officials believe a total of 82,000 people are affected.

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