Would-be messiahs back in action

Millennialists return after being removed from Jerusalem as 2000 approached

Special to The Globe and Mail/January 1, 2001
By Matthew Kalman

Jerusalem -- The plump American with the smiling, round face and woollen cap standing outside a Jerusalem department store was keen to talk about international relations.

"All this is leading to a Third World War, you know," he said, referring to the continuing unrest in the West Bank and Gaza. "China will play a major role, and millions of people are going to be killed. "I'm here on a mission," he confided. "I've been sent here to try and prevent this war."

He took out his identification and presented some impressive credentials. According to his genuine-looking U.S. passport, the 40-something man with a salt-and-pepper beard and a large knapsack was none other than King David -- the Hebrew ruler who made Jerusalem his capital 3,000 years ago. It was a pleasure to see him. The streets of Jerusalem have been lacking John the Baptist, the prophet Isaiah and other would-be messiahs who were regular features in the holy city until about a year ago.

Many of them were gripped by the Jerusalem Syndrome, a recognized psychiatric disorder in which perfectly normal people become so entranced by Jerusalem's religious atmosphere that they assume the identities of biblical characters or become modern-day prophets. But because of a security crackdown by Israel and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, the prophets, kings and gods were rounded up and kicked out as 2000 approached and many feared that some millennialist sects might spark violence in this tense region.

"Every year we examine about 150 patients, of whom 40 or so require hospitalization," said Dr. Yair Barel, director of the Kfar Shaul psychiatric hospital in Jerusalem. "There was one case where two different patients insisted they were the Messiah, so I decided to put them in a room together to see if they would come to their senses."

It didn't work, he said. "Each thought the other was an impostor." Despite the security fears, or perhaps because of them, Dr. Barel said, the expected rise in the number of cases of Jerusalem Syndrome during 2000 did not materialize.

Only a few sufferers have ever proved dangerous. One was a fundamentalist Australian Christian who tried to burn down the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in 1969, which could have sparked an all-out Middle East War.

Since 1969, Muslims have been afraid that Israel is planning to rebuild Solomon's Temple there. Palestinians justify their current intifada (uprising) by invoking Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon's controversial visit to the compound on Sept. 28.

In the months before last January, Israeli security forces were on high alert for the possibility that apocalyptic millennialists would attack the mosque or stage mass suicides in Jerusalem in an attempt to hasten the End of Days. Dozens of fundamentalists -- most of them quite harmless -- were rounded up and expelled from Israel in late-night raids.

According to Gershom Gorenberg, author of The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount, published this week by the Free Press, a U.S. publisher, the overzealous police actions were not entirely misplaced.

"The expectation of The End is part of significant streams within all three of the monotheistic religions," Mr. Gorenberg said in an interview. "In all three, there are significant numbers of people whose vision of the end focuses geographically on Jerusalem and specifically on the Temple Mount."

Mr. Gorenberg said it is no surprise that the seven-year-long Oslo peace process left until the end any discussion about the Temple Mount, which is holy to both Muslims and Jews and regarded by evangelical Christians as the site of the Jewish Temple, which must be rebuilt before the Second Coming.

Numerous Web sites analyze current events in the light of biblical prophecy, suggesting that we are living through the End of Days. Currently enjoying huge success in the United States are the Left Behind books, a series of novels by fundamentalist Christians Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins.

Mr. Gorenberg said the fact that nothing happened last New Year's Eve has not destroyed belief in the apocalypse. Now that 2000 and 2001 have both begun quietly, the tension is even greater.

"This is really the point at which millennial and messianic groups become interesting and most unstable, when their expectations have been dashed via the continuation of history," he said.

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