"A Date with Death" - by James Meek

by James Meek ("The Guardian", October 27, 1999)

David Koresh was sitting inside his fortified compound, talking on the phone to Henry from the FBI. They had a problem. Each thought the other was unhinged. Henry thought that Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidian sect, was a paranoid schizophrenic. Peering out at the armoured vehicles gathered by federal agents on the Waco fields, Koresh believed Henry was crazy to ignore the word of God. "One of the things, one of the things is I don't understand the scriptures like you, honestly, I just don't," said the FBI man.
Not surprisingly, negotiations broke down; after a 51-day siege, the authorities stormed the building. Seventy-four people died in the conflagration that followed. Exactly two years later, in Oklahoma City, a young Gulf War veteran called Timothy McVeigh, his head swimming with a toxic blend of Bible prophecy, racial supremacy and world government conspiracy theory, marked the anniversary in his own way. The bomb he set outside the federal building in Oklahoma City killed 168 people.
The governments of the US, Britain and Israel are determined to make sure it doesn't happen again. The big anniversary is coming up: 2000 years since the birth of Jesus Christ. For hundreds of millions of Christians around the world, that is what the millennium means - not a 10-day booze-up, a Dome or a ride on a big wheel, but 2000AD, the Year of Our Lord. For many of them, it means something more - a sign of the imminence of the second coming of Christ, the beginning of his thousand-year reign on earth, as foretold in the Bible. For a handful it may be the moment when they become part of the Bible story in which they so fervently believe. That's what has the police worried.
In the US, heightened surveillance is being carried out on the scores of fringe religious sects and religiously influenced armed militia groups spread out among the villas of California and hilltop bunkers in the Bible Belt. At the weekend, British police officers will be briefed by US colleagues on how to avoid the mistakes the FBI made at Waco. And in Israel, expected to be the destination for hordes of Christian pilgrims as Christmas and New Year approach, they are getting tough.
On Monday, 21 members of two Christian groups, the House of Prayer and Solomon's Temple - three of them Britons - were arrested by police as posing "a danger to public safety". They will be deported tomorrow - the third time Christians have been expelled from a nervous Holy Land this year.
Perhaps the Israelis are right to be cautious. Their most fearful vision is a terrible one: a clash or a conspiracy bringing together Christians convinced that the foretold violent, chaotic time of tribulation preceding the second coming has begun; ultra-radical Jews who yearn to see the ancient Temple of Jerusalem restored; and Muslims, seeking to protect the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest place in Islam.
But are the Israeli authorities, in fact, in danger of provoking the very crisis they are trying to prevent? By arresting and deporting visible Christian groups - most of whose members showed no inclination to violence, self-inflicted or otherwise - they risk heightening the sense of persecution in unstable, unpredictable loners such as Timothy McVeigh: the outsiders. The quiet, unremarkable ones. The ones who slip through the net.
"I'm not sure these identified groups are going to be the source of any trouble," said Brenda Brasher, an associate of the Boston-based Centre for Millenial Studies. "I think the greatest source of trouble is going to be the lone individual, like Timothy McVeigh, who identifies with these groups but doesn't belong to them. In this Israeli situation, these loners who read about the expulsions - who knows how they're going to react? I don't want to fuel that sort of paranoia."
Brasher knows the leaders of the two latest groups to be arrested, Brother David and Brother Solomon, well. Both, she feels, are at worst harmless, at best generous workers for the poor - like the group of mainly Irish Roman Catholic pilgrims turned away from Haifa earlier this month.
"We're talking about Jerusalem here," she said. "It's a city with deep religious meaning to three of the largest religions in the world, and not to expect religiously fervent believers to turn up there is like being in Disneyland and not expecting any tourists."
The first group to be expelled from Israel, Concerned Christians, was less benign. Fourteen members of the cult, including six children, were deported by plane to Toronto in January after police raided the two homes in Jerusalem where they were staying. No charges were laid, but police said the cult had been planning acts of violence in the Old City in the days leading up to the new year, and might have staged a mass suicide attempt.
The cult was established by Monte Kim Miller in Denver in 1980. Sixteen years later, he announced that he was God's spokesman; shortly before his 14 followers surfaced in Israel, he announced he would die on the streets of Jerusalem in December 1999 and be reincarnated three days later. He also predicted an earthquake would destroy Denver in October 1998. The non-appearance of the foretold apocalypse failed to discourage his core followers, who had already left their jobs, sold up and quit the city. Miller's current whereabouts are unknown, and dozens of his adherents are still missing.
The apparent menace of Concerned Christians, and the heavily armed, anti-government, white supremacist Biblical messages given out by such groups as Christian Identity - holed up with flamethrowers and machine guns in the Ozark mountains in eastern Oklahoma - contrasts with the mildly eccentric good works of Brother David and Brother Solomon.
They live, work and were arrested on the Mount of Olives, where according to the gospel of the apostle Matthew, Jesus sat and ran through the details of his return journey - being careful not to say exactly when he was coming. He simply said that beforehand there would be wars, rumours of wars, famines, pestilences and earthquakes in diverse places - allowing bold prophets to confidently predict his imminent arrival in most years since his crucifixion. There have been wars, a famines, pestilences and earthquakes ever since.
Brother David, 58, from Syracuse in New York, had renounced his US citizenship and described himself as a "world citizen". He was a familiar figure among the poor Palestinian community on the Mount of Olives, campaigning for low-cost housing and handing out old clothes. He did not believe 2000 would see the beginning of the end of the world as we know it.
Brother Solomon, who moved to Jerusalem via Brooklyn and his Jamaican birthplace, was a 65-year-old who used to move around the streets of the city in a pinstriped suit. He was an eschatologist, a practitioner of the esoteric science of poring over the Bible, seeking a hidden message written in some form of numerical code. But he was, according to Brasher, a relaxed eschatologist.
"He'd say: 'Maybe 2000, maybe 2001.' I asked him what would happen if 2001 came and nothing happened. He said: 'I'll go back and recalculate. Obviously I'd have missed something."
There is an ambivalence in the world's evangelical movement when they speak of the coming anniversary. To be an evangelical - and there are thought to be a million in Britain - is to believe utterly in the truth of the Bible, and to believe in that means to believe that Jesus will come again. Yet they strive to distance themselves from the idea that to believe in a second coming is to give it a date, let alone take action to try to precipitate it.
Some radical US websites - the Internet has become a key medium for extremist groups to spread their messianic message - predict that a central part of the time of tribulation will be a wholesale slaughter of Christians by Muslims. The authorities dread action in Jerusalem's old city to try to provoke the Muslim community.
Christine Darg, an American living in Hereford, runs an evangelical organisation called Daystar International, which organises trips to Israel to "pray for the peace of Jerusalem". The organisation's website, www.olivetree.org, has a webcam trained on the gates of the ancient city walls, allowing browsers to be virtual pilgrims - and perhaps to catch the second coming.
Darg said she sympathised with the Israeli authorities. She would be with her group in Jerusalem as the new year approached, praying peacefully. If Jesus came, it would be great, and if he didn't, they'd still believe in him.
She said she had never encountered anyone suffering from the "Jerusalem syndrome," the mental condition said to afflict believers who identify themselves with the messiah or some other actor in an apocalyptic scenario.
"I've a ministry out there in Israel, and I speak every year at the largest Christian conference in Israel. This year at that conference a doctor made a statement to the effect that none of the Christians attending has ever been diagnosed with Jerusalem syndrome."
Darg said she believed the creation in 1948 of the state of Israel was a clear sign that, for this generation, the second coming might really be at hand. "All we know is that the coming of the Lord is near. This world, with its governmental system, can't continue like this forever. As Star Trek tells it, and a lot of science fiction. He will return, and the Bible clearly teaches he will rule bodily for 1,000 years. This is what believers have believed for 1,000 years. What's so strange is that now this doctrine sounds like it's off the wall, when it is orthodox Christianity."


"Israel Arrests Foreign-Born Christians"

by Mike O'Connor ("The Washington Post",October 26, 1999)

JERUSALEM, Oct. 25°XCiting growing concern that the millennium will bring thousands of unstable visitors to the Holy Land, the Israeli government today rounded up 21 foreign-born members of two Christian groups and considered whether to expel them.
The arrests and the likely deportations are part of a crackdown on groups seen as posing a risk of violence at the new year, according to government officials. A police spokeswoman said the Christians, including 16 Americans, were possibly planning actions that could threaten public safety, although she gave no details.
"I wouldn't say any of these people were actually dangerous. Probably they were not. But these days if there is even the potential for something, you don't wait," said a senior official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The arrests marked the third time this year that the government has moved against Christians suspected of being extremists or members of a cult. Israeli officials have said that as 2000 approaches, extremist Christians may act violently to realize their interpretation of biblical prophecy.
The Christians, eight of them children, were arrested on grounds that their visas had expired. Indeed, an American known as Brother David, who led one of the groups, has said that as a Christian he is a citizen of the world and sees no need to have even a passport.
Still, American Christians who know the people who were arrested said they fear the government may crack down on foreigners who simply seem unconventional.
"Are the police going to arrest Christians? That's what I'm worried about," said David Bogenrief, who said he is a Christian musician who has lived in Israel for 15 years. "We sing and evangelize and we do it in a way that some people may think is crazy."
In a recent interview, Brother David said he came to Israel 20 years ago after being born again when God spoke to him while he was cleaning a Methodist church in Syracuse, N.Y. With that, he said, he flew to Israel and hitchhiked to Jerusalem.
About five years ago, he said God told him to move to the Mount of Olives and prepare for the coming of the Messiah. He said that by 2000 he hopes to attract as many as 500 born-again Christians to be with him and have what he called "front-row seats" for the return of Jesus.
Brother David and another American arrested today, called Sister Sharon, rented inexpensive apartments to their followers and others on the Mount of Olives, a place populated by Palestinians. Some of their neighbors described them as eccentric but not dangerous.
"I never saw anyone with a problem from them," Farida Abu Doula said. "They gave the children here used clothes they got from the United States. They gave some to my children too."

"Detained `end-time' Christians insist they are nonviolent"

by Elaine Ruth Fletcher ("Religion News Service", October 26, 1999)

JERUSALEM -- From the roof of her tiny unheated apartment in Bethany, Sharon, a 53-year-old with long red hair and 11 grandchildren, could look out onto legendary Bible sites where Jesus spent his last days prior to the crucifixion, and pray for his speedy return in the new millennium.
But late last Sunday (Oct. 24), Sharon and her longtime associate known as Brother David, a leader of a local Christian prayer house in this Arab eastern Jerusalem neighborhood, were caught up in an Israeli police sweep that has resulted in the arrest of some 21 Christian tourists, mostly Americans.
Also among the detainees were the members of a second, predominantly black congregation in the area, which is an offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The group's leader, a retired New York City schoolteacher named Winston Rose, happened to be in the United States when the police dragnet was laid. Rose is known here to followers as Brother Solomon.
Israeli officials justified the arrest and deportation orders saying that the two groups could "endanger public security" during the upcoming millennium year. Israeli news reports, meanwhile, compared the detainees to the Branch Davidian sect whose confrontation with U.S. federal agents resulted in the death of some 80 group members outside Waco, Texas, and to the Denver-based Concerned Christians group who tried to settle here earlier this year.
The latter group quoted convicted murderer Charles Manson in its religious teachings.
But on Tuesday (Oct. 26), as a clearer profile of the detainees began to emerge, critics began to ask if the move was really justified. Notably, the Anti-Defamation League issued a statement expressing concern the arrests had been based on "incorrect" information -- and were likely to harm Israel's image in the eyes of Christians.
"While it is important for Israel to address the security threat, the failure to distinguish violent from peaceful groups will prove to be a serious boomerang for Israel," said Rabbi David Rosen, the director of the ADL's Israel office.
"Aside from the damage to Israel's international image, such actions may have wider deleterious effects, depriving the Jewish state not only of the benefits of tourism but also of the enormous amount of good will that is offered by the pilgrimage of millions for the new millennium."
Indeed, interviews with the leaders and members of the two congregations, conducted by RNS over the past year, yield a profile unlike that of a secretive sect. In both congregations, prayer meetings were generally open to the public and even the press. The gatherings, which featured gospel music and emotional prayer sessions, drew inquisitive television film crews and tourists from around the world.
In their repeated interviews with journalists, both Brother David and Brother Solomon denounced violence as a means to bring about the return of the messiah -- and sought to distinguish themselves from groups that had attempted violence or committed mass suicides in the name of divine will.
"There are millions of pilgrims who come here every year just to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. So to take a handful of Concerned Christians and to say that they are representative is an exaggeration," said Brother David in an interview conducted earlier this year. A quiet, affable man in his late fifties who sports a goatee, he called his Bethany mission the "House of Prayer."
"Our purpose is to prepare the way for the coming of the messiah," Brother David added. "But anyone who thinks they are going to commit suicide or blow up other people's buildings certainly didn't get that from the teachings of Jesus.
"We have signs showing that the coming of the messiah is very near. But no man knows the day or the hour. We believe in leaving things in the hands of God."
Prior to the sudden arrests on Sunday, Brother David supported himself by renovating old apartment buildings in Bethany, and subletting the rooms to visiting Christian tourists. Sharon spent most of her time distributing used clothing to needy Arab families.
It's no accident millennial Christian groups chose a setting like Bethany as the stage to await the end of the world. This town edges the ancient graveyard on the Mount of Olives where religious Jews as well as Christians believe that the resurrection of the dead will first take place.
Sharon's home, for instance, is right next door to the tomb of Lazarus, whom Jesus is said to have raised from the dead, as well to the boarded-up ruins of a dwelling where the biblical Mary Magdalene and Martha lived according to tradition. It was the place where Jesus stayed just before he was crucified.
"Everyone always wants to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. Well Jesus lived here and so do we," said Sharon in a recent interview. "It's exciting being in the place where the major events of the Bible happened -- as well as in the middle of God's actions today. The year 2000 may not be the exact date, but I believe it is a landmark that says we're getting close."
Sharon, a former inventory consultant for an electronics firm and the mother of seven children, first came to Israel in 1992, after receiving what she describes as a direction from God.
A week after arriving, she joined the street ministry of Brother David, the former owner of an upstate New York trailer park who had sold his business and embarked on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land more than two decades earlier.
Shortly after their meeting, Brother David was imprisoned for nine months by authorities because he lacked a valid tourist visa. He was released after consistently refusing to provide officials in the Ministry of Interior with concrete evidence of his U.S. citizenship.
A police list of the detainees made public Tuesday suggests his real name is Ed Anderson, while Sharon's full name is Sharon Peterson.
Now once again under arrest, it is likely the street preacher and other key members of the group will attempt to conceal details of their citizenship and passports again, preferring to test the patience and will of Israeli authorities by spending time in prison rather than board a plane out of the Holy Land.
"I've followed God with all my heart all my life. And I'd rather be called a civil disobedient than a God disobedient," said Brother David, speaking at a Wednesday evening prayer meeting in Bethany earlier this year. "Did Abraham have to fill out papers to come into the Holy Land?"
Distributed by The Associated Press (AP)

"Israel Arrests 20 'Millennial Christians' - Police say the detainees, including 13 from U.S., might have imperiled public safety out of a desire for the Second Coming"

by Rebecca Trounson ("Los Angeles Times", October 26, 1999)

JERUSALEM--Alarmed by the possibility of violence by extreme Christian groups in the countdown to 2000, Israeli police on Monday detained 20 foreign Christians, many of them Americans, who had settled near the Mount of Olives in recent years in hopes of witnessing Christ's return.
A police spokeswoman said those in custody--men, women and children who are members of at least two loose-knit Christian groups--were suspected of plotting to harm public safety in Israel.
They will be deported, probably within the week, she said. The early morning sweep through apartments in the Jerusalem suburb of Al Ayzariyah marked the third time since January that Israel has acted against members of Christian groups. Israeli officials are increasingly concerned that the millennium, which is expected to bring millions of tourists to the Holy Land, might also induce a handful of people to use violence to try to hasten Christ's return. Police spokeswoman Linda Menuhin said those arrested on Monday, including 13 Americans, three Britons, three Jamaicans and an Australian, were in Israel with expired visas or without passports. But the police also had reason to suspect that in certain circumstances, the detainees might behave in a way that would affect public security, Menuhin said.
She would not elaborate. However, Israeli officials have warned previously that Christian extremists could be planning to carry out acts aimed at precipitating the Second Coming, including destroying the mosques on Jerusalem's Temple Mount or committing mass suicide nearby. In January, Israel expelled 14 members of a Denver-based apocalyptic cult, the Concerned Christians, whose members had abandoned their homes and jobs and headed to Jerusalem to await the millennium.
Two weeks ago, the government prevented a group of pilgrims, most of them Irish, from entering the country, saying that they too posed a danger to public safety. On Monday, neighbors and others who identified themselves as friends said the detainees were quiet, devout people who distributed food and clothing to needy Palestinians and did not appear to have any plans for violent acts.
Several residents expressed shock at the arrests and said that more than 20 police officers and Israeli border guards had arrived at each apartment.
"They are peaceful, friendly people, and I do not think they would do anything dangerous," said a 60-year-old Palestinian who rented rooms to several of the arrestees but asked that his name not be used.
Those detained belonged to two groups, the House of Prayer and Solomon's Temple, police said. According to police and Al Ayzariyah residents, the arrested included Brother David, a self-described born-again Christian preacher and former trailer park owner from Syracuse, N.Y.; Sister Sharon, a member of his group who is originally from Sacramento; and Sharon's son Raymond. David, who has said in the past that he shed his last name when he moved to Israel, has lived here off and on for 18 years. Israeli television showed film of Raymond being led away by police.
"The devil doesn't like us preaching in the name of Jesus in Israel," he said. Residents said the leader of the second group, Solomon Ben-David, is a Jamaican-born New Yorker. Ben-David was detained at the airport Sunday night when he arrived back in Israel from abroad, residents said. Several of his followers were among those arrested in the sweep just after midnight.
Police spokeswoman Menuhin said Christian pilgrims should not be afraid to visit the Holy Land during the millennial year, when 3 million visitors are expected.
"We don't want Christians to be afraid to come to Israel, but they have to abide by the law," she said. But some Christians are nervous.
"Are the police going to be arresting Christians all the time now?" asked David Bogenrief, who described himself as a born-again Christian, a musician and a friend of Brother David.
"That's what we're all worried about. "We, as Christians, might look crazy to people because we sing and raise our hands and say that we love God," he added. "But that's all."


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