Preparing for the end times

A different brand of pilgrims' progress

U.S. News and World Report, December 27, 1999
By David Makovsky

JERUSALEM-Jesus, Elijah, and Moses walk the streets. The man on the corner is a prophet, warning of end times to come; in the walled Old City, they're selling pamphlets predicting the victory of any number of religious sects in the apocalyptic battle that will follow.

Welcome to Jerusalem. While this city has long attracted zealots and madmen (in addition to the pious and the passionate), as the millennium approaches things are getting wackier by the day. Besides the usual loonies, Israel is concerned that a few fringe doomsday cultists will slip into the country and attack Islamic mosques on Jerusalem's Temple Mount. In their twisted theology, destroying the Al-Aqsa mosque or the Dome of the Rock would bring on the building of a "Third Temple," which some evangelicals believe would be the springboard to the Second Coming.

At the same time, there is another dimension to any such terrorism: An attack against Islamic holy places would put the ever so delicate Middle East peace process under unprecedented strain-and some security analysts privately fret that it could even trigger a general war between Arabs and Jews. U.S. officials confirm that a recent FBI confidential report warns that cultist attacks against Muslim holy places could have severe consequences for Middle East peace. But it could take just one deranged individual to wreak havoc. In 1969, for example, a crazed Australian Christian set fire to Al-Aqsa, leading to Muslim protests worldwide. Hidden cameras. Israel is taking no chances. According to secu- rity sources, Jerusalem police have set up hidden cameras in Jerusalem's Old City to moni- tor unusual activity. Last week, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert opened a "Millennium Situation Room" at City Hall. Different security forces, including police, the Shin Bet, and Mossad, are working together. The FBI liaison office at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv is aiding Israeli intelligence, U.S. officials say.

The Israel Tourism Ministry is expecting-indeed, welcoming-3 million visitors in 2000, which will make it even harder to track individuals. So far this year, Israel has deported 60 people suspected of being violent. In January, Jerusalem police arrested 14 members of a Denver-based group, Concerned Christians, after its leader vowed to die in the Old City so as to hasten the Second Coming. Police say the group planned to blow up Al-Aqsa. Other street preachers were also recently ushered out of the country. Having moved from Brooklyn to Jerusalem close to two decades ago, "Brother David" founded the House of Prayer center in Jerusalem. Before his deportation, he was taking a few followers every evening to the Mount of Olives, where Jesus is supposed to return to Earth. There, Brother David led them in ecstatic prayer, communicating in tongues. (There are currently about 100 Christians who have temporarily moved to the Mount of Olives so they can witness the Second Coming.)

In some cases, the police have been accused of cracking down too hard on what are essentially individuals practicing religion. Part of the problem is discerning between the truly dangerous, the merely disturbed, or the deeply zealous. Among the unstable are those with Jerusalem syndrome, the condition of being so overwhelmed by being in the city that they think they are biblical figures.

Too many people. A gathering place for end-of-worlders is the Western Wall, the remnant of the Second Temple, considered the holiest spot for Jews to pray. That's where you can often find Bob Frank Brown, who wears a black Stetson hat, has pockets full of tissues, and says he has a doctorate from UCLA. He sings songs that combine doomsday imagery with talk of love. "I saw a sign on Mount Sinai, telling me to . . . get the message out to all nations, a message of Christian love. . . . At the millennium, this coming together of people will produce a little more tolerance for the other guy's religion." Yet, at the same time, he says, "Six billion are too many people, and a lot of them are going to die." Brown plans to give a New Year's Eve concert at the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus spent his last night. Gregory Katz, a doctor at Jerusalem's main psychiatric clinic, Kfar Shaul, says they usually treat about 150 people, primarily tourists, for Jerusalem syndrome each year. But this year, Katz told Israel Radio, "There is already an increase of about 50 to 60 percent. If all the forecasts of an increase in tourists are true, then we think the cases will increase by 100 percent." Some are considered to be mentally disturbed, while others are only temporarily delusional, explains Yair Bar-el, director of Kfar Shaul and the first to identify Jerusalem syndrome in 1982. "There are people with no clear psychopathology who come on a group tour and develop hallucinations," Bar-el said. "Some put on white 'biblical' clothes and start singing hymns. In this group, the syndrome is temporary. After about a week, when they 'come to,' they are extremely embarrassed and find it hard to explain what happened to them."

The craziness in Jerusalem will no doubt last longer than that. Richard Landes, director of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University, says that in 1033, hordes of people descended upon Jerusalem, expecting the Second Coming-and stayed for several years.

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