JERUSALEM (AP) - Israel today detained 21 foreign Christians, mostly Americans, who have settled in recent years near the Mount of Olives in anticipation of Christ's return.
Police said the detainees, followers of the House of Prayer group, were suspected of planning to harm public safety and would be deported after an investigation. Police spokesman Rafi Yaffi said a key concern was that the group was paving the way for other Christians to settle in Israel.
Today's sweep marked the third time since January that Israel has detained Christian groups. Israeli authorities suspect so-called Christian "end-timers" will carry out violent acts to bring about an apocalypse and hasten the return of Christ.
Israel radio reported that police suspected the House of Prayer followers of planning mass suicide or other dangerous acts. However, group members have said in the past they oppose violence.
In January, Israel expelled a dozen followers of a Denver-based cult, the Concerned Christians, and earlier this month, it barred Irish and Romanian pilgrims from entering the country.
The 21 Christians detained today were arrested in a midnight sweep, packed into police vans and driven to a prison in the town of Ramle in central Israel.
A leader of the group, Brother David, said he and his followers were arrested "because we speak the truth and Israel is about to hear the truth in a greater way than ever before."
David, who like the others in the group does not use a last name, spoke from behind the white wire mesh covering the windows of the police van.
He said he is a former trailer park owner from Syracuse, N.Y. who settled in Israel in the 1970s. Five years ago, he moved to the Mount of Olives, the point to which he believes Jesus will return very soon.
His group, the House of Prayer, provides food and clothing to the needy and helps foreign Christians find places to stay.
Sister Sharon, 53, of Sacramento, Calif., said she had just gotten home from watching a movie at the nearby home of her son, Brother Raymond, when police knocked on the door after midnight.
"When I got outside, they told me I was getting arrested," Sharon said, speaking by mobile phone from the van. "The street was full of police." Sharon said that among those detained were Christians from the United States, Australia, England and Spain.
Police spokeswoman Linda Menuhin said the 21 were detained because "police believe their stay could have brought, under certain circumstances, damage to public safety." Menuhin said they would be deported once the investigation was completed.
Israel fears that as the millennium approaches, it will become a magnet for apocalyptic groups. However, there is also some concern that a crackdown on such groups will backfire and that pilgrims will be deterred from visiting the Holy Land.
Already, Israel has halved its earlier predictions, saying it now expects only 3 million visitors in 2000. Tourism officials have attributed the drop to a lackluster marketing campaign and security concerns of would-be visitors.