'End-timers' begin flocking to Jerusalem
| MEVASSERET ZION, ISRAEL
In this affluent Jerusalem suburb, home to members of a Denver-based apocalyptic group arrested by Israeli police Jan. 3, one of the most prominent views is of the Givat Shaul Cemetery - a large, ultramodern burial ground.
It is far from any view of Jerusalem's other grave-covered hilltop that they came to be near: the famed Mount of Olives, where some Christians believe Jesus will return to the world after 2,000 years.
But Israeli authorities say members of the Concerned Christians group were planning to provoke shootouts in their neighborhood by opening fire on police, in the hopes of hastening Armageddon and thus the Second Coming.
The incident has put the spotlight on the large influx of pilgrims expected as the millennium approaches and has raised concerns about how Israel will cope with those who may cause disturbances.
In some ways, Israeli authorities want to pave the way for millennial celebrations and the boon they could provide for Israel's tourism industry and international image. But the enthusiasm is tempered by indications that some groups will look to spark strife to help fulfill predictions of a final great war - the battle of Gog and Magog as told in Revelation - in a city where tensions between Arabs and Jews are already at tinderbox conditions.
In the next year alone, an estimated 4.5 million Christians are expected to arrive in Israel, some with the hope of witnessing the "end of days" as foretold in the Old and New Testaments. The majority will come in search of a peaceful if inspiring pilgrimage. But Monte Kim Miller, according to police, will not.
The Concerned Christians leader, like several fringe figures dubbed "end-timers," thinks that the approach of the millennium signals that the Second Coming is at hand. Mr. Miller reportedly told his followers he would die in Jerusalem in December 1999 and be resurrected as the Messiah. Miller's whereabouts, however, remain unknown.
Following the arrests, Israeli authorities have moved to deport six of the cult's children and five adults. Another three who have been detained will be deported following a police investigation, officials say.
US authorities say they may have no basis for detaining the cult members once they return since most of them haven't committed crimes in the United States.
Israelis, meanwhile, are taking more interest in what may transpire as the millennium approaches. They want to avoid a repeat of 1969, for example, when a fundamentalist Christian from Australia set fire to the Muslim Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount - a place holy to Muslim, Christian, and Jewish faiths. He had hoped to usher in a building of a Third Temple and the return of Jesus.
This time, Israeli police said yesterday, they will install cameras and extra metal detectors to protect the mosque.
Another scenario drawing concern is that Christians might camp out around the Mount of Olives to wait for Jesus' arrival - as did the masses of pilgrims that poured into Jerusalem around the year 1000. Experts fear that more extreme groups could grow disappointed with waiting and advocate mass suicide to hasten his return.
Israeli authorities also expect to face increased caseloads of "Jerusalem Syndrome," a term coined by a Jerusalem psychiatrist for pilgrims experiencing delusions in which they believe they are Jesus or any one of a number of biblical prophets.
Yair Bar-El, the chairman of the Israeli Psychiatric Society, estimates that some 40,000 tourists may be judged to need psychiatric help and as many as 800 may be hospitalized.
But other members of Israel's government committee on 2000, which includes representatives from the Health, Tourism, Religious Affairs, and Internal Security Ministries, say that the hype over such disturbances is out of proportion.
One man who isn't minimizing the possible impact of the coming millennium on pilgrims is Prof. Richard Landes, a medieval historian and director of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University. Professor Landes, who founded the center in 1996 to document the impact of millennial movements through the ages, says that if history is any barometer, then there should be an upsurge in apocalyptic expectations here and around the world.
"In 1033, the millennium of the Passion, you have this huge wave of pilgrims going to Jerusalem with no intention of returning," Landes says. "Today, one part of apocalyptic Christians is acting locally and thinking globally; another part is acting globally and going to Jerusalem."
Landes says that increased expectations for the "end of days," while primarily attracting Christians, will include members of other faiths as well. Muslims recognize Jesus as a prophet, while some Jewish sources identify the Hebrew calendar year 5760 - which falls this September - for the coming of the Messiah.
Among those coming to Jerusalem are millions of regular pilgrims, a "soft core" of hundreds of thousands who expect that "big things will happen," and a "a hard core of apocalyptic believers who will be working overtime to convince the rest of them that this is the end time."
Landes predicts that increased fervor over the the turn of the millennium will probably be focused on Jerusalem - but not limited to it.
"Israel's got a special case, but we can expect apocalyptic activity of various kinds all over the world. Millennialism is a very powerful force in the West that has been underestimated because its messianic prophets have always been wrong. My point is they may have been wrong, but they're not inconsequential."
Steps to maintain order
That has Israeli and Palestinians officials - who are in charge of Bethlehem - looking for ways that to ensure they will be able to keep matters under control. Israeli police say they have have formed a special unit to deal with extremist groups and are working in cooperation with other countries' intelligence services.
Law-enforcement experts say they will be monitoring tourists carefully at airports to screen out visitors who may be planning to harm themselves or others upon arrival in Israel.
As millennium frenzy spreads, some Christian organizations say they're concerned that a few fringe groups could harm the image of mainstream Christians in Israel.
"There is a legitimate security concern for Israel, and it's right to be prepared," says David Parsons, the spokesman for the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, a Zionist Christian group. "But we're trying to reassure Israelis that the vast majority of the millions of Christians coming here are peace-loving. We do occasionally get pilgrims who come here - they're standing at a biblical site they've read about their whole life - and they get a little overwhelmed by it.
"It's just a matter of telling them, 'You're not Elijah' and getting them back home. Within a day or two they're fine. But that's got nothing to do with Jerusalem - Jerusalem just gets a bad name from that."