JERUSALEM (Reuters) - A Christian Zionist umbrella group urged Israelis Tuesday to welcome millennium pilgrims and not believe news reports that they are flocking to Jerusalem to witness the end of the world.
"The Christian Embassy shares with many others a firm belief in 'the coming of the Lord'," the Jerusalem-based International Christian Embassy group said in a statement. But it added: "The vast majority of Christians do not take seriously anyone who may be seeing with certainty either 2000 or 2001 as the date for Christ's return."
Israeli officials say they expect some three million tourists to visit biblical sites in the Holy Land during 2000 and 2001 at the start of Christianity's Third Millennium.
Police have set up a special task force to deal with members of messianic sects they fear may use violence to try to realize apocalyptic visions of the end of the world.
"Israeli authorities certainly have the right and duty to take all reasonable precautions and make informed assessments of any potential security risks on an individual basis.
"However, Israelis and others need to look past the dissemination of negative images and recognize these pilgrims are coming with peaceful intentions," the group said.
Earlier this year, Israeli authorities deported several members of a Christian doomsday cult based in Denver, Colorado.
Much of Israel's concern focuses on fears that cultists will try to destroy religious sites holy to Muslims and Jews in Jerusalem, setting off bloodshe in the Holy City.
The International Christian Embassy says it represents tens of millions of Christians of various denominations who see the existence of the state of Israel as a vehicle to redemption.
It was set up in 1980 to support the Jewish state's claim to all of Jerusalem as its "united and eternal capital."
Palestinians want Arab East Jerusalem including the Old City, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War, as the capital of their future state.
The Christian Embassy is holding its annual Feast of the Tabernacles gathering in Jerusalem this week during the Jewish festival of Sukkot.
Prime Minister Ehud Barak has broken with his predecessors and turned down an invitation to address the group. It was a fervent supporter of right-win Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who Barak defeated in May's general election.