Millennium Madness

Brother David came to Jerusalem from Brooklyn 18 years ago, expecting to witness the Second Coming almost any day. He sold all his possessions in America and found a place to live on the Mount of Olives, in a dusty Palestinian neighborhood called Azzariyeh. The Gospels call it Bethany and say this is where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Brother David and a handful of evangelical Christian followers gathered here every evening to wait for the messiah's return, praying and speaking in tongues. The preacher is an intense man with a jet-black goatee, a piercing gaze and no other name he answers to besides simply Brother David. "I feel very excited," he told NEWSWEEK recently. "I feel the Lord's returning. The millennium is to be the time of his coming."

These days Brother David can only pray for a miracle of his own. Israeli police arrested him and several American followers in late October and deported them last week in the name of public security. The approaching millennium is attracting doomsday fanatics as well as innocent Christians from all over the world. Some fringe groups are suspected of plotting acts of violence in hope of giving the apocalypse a kick-start. "They are not Christians, I'll tell you that," Brother David said before his arrest. "They are cults. Nobody I know would do any violence." Still, the Israelis make no apology for his expulsion. According to Linda Menuchin, a police spokeswoman: "The most important thing from our point of view is that we prevented anything extraordinary from happening."

The police can't relax even now. Brother David and his followers were among roughly 100 foreigners living on the Mount of Olives, believing this to be the site of the Second Coming. What scares the Israelis most is how much trouble some zealots might cause while they await the big day. "We're going to see this all over the place--people don't have to go to Jerusalem to do something nutty," says Hal Mansfield, who tracks cults at the Religious Movements Resource Center in Ft. Collins, Colorado. "But you're going to see a heck of a lot of them in Jerusalem." Brother David says he can hardly blame the Israelis for their millennial jitters. "With these cults," he says, "well, you can never tell."

The risk is rooted in a bizarre psychological affliction: "Jerusalem syndrome." Every year a few tourists and pilgrims, emotionally overwhelmed by the holy city, become convinced they are the Son of God or one of his prophets. Perhaps the most notorious case was in 1969, when an Australian Christian, imagining he could hasten the Second Coming, provoked Muslim riots around the world when he tried to burn down Jerusalem's main mosque. The city's Kfar Shaul Psychiatric Hospital even has a special Jerusalem-syndrome ward. The problem is expected to soar in the coming year. Israel expects 3 million pilgrims in 2000--including Pope John Paul II himself. The Israeli Psychiatric Society estimates that 40,000 of those visitors may suffer at least mild bouts of Jerusalem syndrome. More than 800 will have to be hospitalized. And it would need only a single delusional traveler to repeat the attack on the Al Aqsa Mosque.

Still, overwrought tourists pose far less worry than end-of-the-world cultists. The FBI's representative at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv is monitoring threats of millennialist violence and sharing intelligence with the Israelis. An October 1999 FBI report identifies Jerusalem's Temple Mount as a special concern. Beneath the Dome of the Rock, one of Islam's holiest shrines, lie the ruins of the city's great Jewish temple, destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70. Before Jesus comes back, some Christian fundamentalists say, the temple must be rebuilt--impossible as long as the Dome of the Rock stands. The FBI's report, obtained by NEWSWEEK, warns: "A simple act of desecration, or even a perceived desecration of any of the holy sites on the Temple Mount is likely to trigger a violent reaction."

To counter such threats the Israelis have formed a special millennium task force, uniting police officers, agents of the domestic secret service known as Shin Bet and members of Mossad, the overseas intelligence service. So far the team's most publicized case has been last January's crackdown on a Denver-based endtimes sect calling itself Concerned Christians. The sect's leader has predicted that he will die on the streets of Jerusalem next month--and that he will be resurrected. Early this year the task force raided two suburban Jerusalem homes where some members were living and arrested 14. Police say members of the group were preparing to blow up one of the city's mosques, an action that would almost inevitably spark a devastating Mideast war. The Concerned Christians denied any violent intentions. They could have saved their breath. The Israelis threw them out of the country.

This fall the Israelis also quietly expelled an American street preacher known only as Elijah. Wearing a long, gray beard, he had been wandering Jerusalem's Old City for more than a decade, insisting he was in fact the Biblical prophet--as well as one of the "two witnesses" mentioned in chapter 11 of the Book of Revelation. In recent months his apocalyptic preachings began to attract a group of disciples. Israeli police picked him up for questioning, gave him a psychological evaluation and quietly persuaded him to leave the country without official deportation proceedings.

Critics say Israel is over- reacting. Elijah never bothered anyone--and until the millennium bug bit, no one bothered him either. He's no isolated instance. Last month a boatload of Irish pilgrims were arrested in Haifa and deported. Several of them, including disabled members of the group, claim Israeli police roughed them up. The Irish government lodged an official protest, saying the pilgrims were members of a charitable organization, not followers of the Concerned Christians, as Israeli newspapers initially reported. Israeli officials are still refusing to say they're sorry. The end of the world may be at hand. But they're not letting it happen on their watch.

Millennium Madness | News