Christian doomsday groups heading to the Holy Land have put Israeli authorities in an awkward spot -- trying to attract pious pilgrims while scaring away "dangerous cults."
On Monday, Jerusalem police detained 21 people, most of them American Christians, in a crackdown against the House of Prayer, an apocalyptic sect led by Brother David, a self-styled prophet from Syracuse, N.Y. Their threatened deportation marks the fourth time this year that Israeli authorities have cracked down on foreign religious groups for visa violations or threatening public safety.
James Tabor, a University of North Carolina professor and an authority on apocalyptic sects, defended the House of Prayer.
Tabor, who interviewed members of the church earlier this year in Israel, said Brother David and his flock may seem eccentric but have theological views similar to those of millions of evangelical Christians.
"They have no plan for violence," he said. "They believe in the secret rapture -- that the next thing to happen is Jesus taking them up to heaven. That's a harmless view."
Brother David, known earlier as Ed Anderson, has been renting out rooms to like-minded Christians on the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem, the spot where some Christians think Jesus will return to Earth, based on their reading of the Bible.
"They're on the 50-yard line for the apocalypse," Tabor said. Elissa Swift, a spokeswoman for the Israeli Consulate in San Francisco, said that her government has moved against U.S. groups and individuals only if they threaten public safety and only in conjunction with the FBI. "There are some Christian apocalyptic groups that have clearly demonstrated violent tendencies," she said. "We want to make sure all the pilgrims going to Israel have a safe journey."
Brother David has lived on the Mount of Olives, a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem, for about four years. It's a dusty, hilly area packed with white sandstone apartments and crumbling streets.
"I'm here on this mount because it is here that the Bible says Jesus will return," he said during an interview in July 1998. "I was standing in my kitchen in upstate New York. The Lord told me to sell what I had and to go and serve him."
His sect hands out clothes to poor Palestinians and holds weekly prayer meetings.
Two other stalwarts of the group come from Sacramento -- Sister Sharon Peterson, a grandmother with long blonde hair and flowered dresses, who moved to Israel in 1995, and her son, Brother Raymond Clark Green. Brother David cited the AIDS epidemic, earthquakes, wars in Africa and a faultline that runs near the Mount of Olives as signs that doomsday is coming.
Gershom Gorenberg, the Jerusalem representative of the Center for Millennial Studies in Boston, had mixed feelings about the roundup. "On the surface, this group was seen as benign," he said. "It wasn't a crystallized community, but a collection of individuals. People dropped in for a time and then left."
Other observers defended the Israeli action.
David Parsons, spokesman for the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, said Brother David was getting lots of media attention. Reporters coming to Jerusalem in search of apocalyptic prophets used his comments to liven up their millennium stories.
Before the millennium craze hit, Parsons said, Brother David used to dress like an Orthodox rabbi and evangelize in traditional Jewish neighborhoods. That didn't go over to well with his ultra-Orthodox neighbors. "Some of the Orthodox tore up his apartment, and he moved to the Mount of Olives," Parsons said. "His prophecies are nonsense. He had no ideas about the millennium when he first came over here."
"You'd often see him passing out his press clipping to tour groups, and advertising cheap rooms for rent," Parsons said. "He has no one but himself to blame."
Gordon Melton, another leading authority on apocalyptic sects, said Israelis authorities need to err on the side of caution.
"They are sitting on a powder keg in Israel," said Melton, head of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara. "Here it would be a gross violation of civil rights. But given the situation there, it is not as mean as it appears. There are Jewish and Muslim groups with long histories of violence, and the Israelis are afraid these (apocalyptic Christian) groups will spark violence."
Earlier this month, the Israelis were criticized for deporting 26 Irish and Romanian tourists, most of them Roman Catholics affiliated with the Pilgrim House Foundation. An Interior Ministry spokeswoman called the group "an extreme Christian cult," a remark that drew protests from the Irish ambassador to Israel.
In January, Israel deported a dozen followers of a Denver group, the Concerned Christians. Their messianic leader, Monte Kim Miller, predicts he will die this December in a bloody battle in the streets of Jerusalem. Tabor, the University of North Carolina professor, said the Israeli crackdown could backfire in two ways.
Harsh government action against apocalyptic groups can simply feed their leaders' persecution complexes, creating a self-fulfilling prophesy of violence or mass suicide.
At the same time, Israel may be hurting its tourist trade. While cracking down on groups that foresee the "end times," the government has launched a multimillion-dollar ad campaign touting Israel as the "land where time began."
"The Israelis are confused. They don't know what to do," Tabor said. "They want tourists to come, and they want to de-apocalypticize the situation. People might start canceling their travel plans because of all these arrests."