Cult's presence in Holy Land no surprise to many

Experts differ on response by Israeli officials

Jewish News of Greater Phoenix/January 15, 1999
By Chris Leppek and Lou Hirsh

The imminence of the next millennium and the undeniable spiritual power of Jerusalem notwithstanding, "it is not the end of the world." That's what Brenda Brasher [Note: Ms. Brasher has written an interesting paper that seems to rationalize the beliefs of "Heavens Gate" cultists--note that nowhere within the paper does she mention the work "cult", discuss the control of the group's leader Applewhite over his followers or his obvious mental instability], a leading expert on Christian millennial cults, says she would have told the Israelis-had they asked her advice just before their recent arrest of members of the Denver-based Concerned Christians group.

In fact, Brasher [Ms. Brasher has shared news conferences with seeming cult apologist Lonnie Kleiver who is recommended as resource by Scientology] told Denver's Intermountain Jewish News in a recent telephone interview, she prolonged a December trip in Israel, where she delivered an academic paper on apocalyptic cults, precisely because of Israeli concerns over the religious group whose members suddenly disappeared from their Denver-area homes in October.

Capping a surveillance operation that lasted several months, Israeli police on Jan. 3 arrested eight members of the cult, which was suspected of planning violent actions in the coming year in an attempt to bring about the second coming of Jesus. Israel has since deported the cult members and six of their children. They are believed to have returned to Denver.

British police this week warned London-based Israeli diplomats of a possible revenge attack by members of the doomsday cult, whose charismatic leader, Monte Kim Miller, is reportedly hiding in England. According to authorities, Miller, 44, has declared he will die in the streets of Jerusalem in 1999.

Israeli officials told Brasher, a professor of religion at Ohio's Mt. Union College and associated with Boston University's Center for Millennial Studies, that they were concerned about Miller's group from the beginning, she says. They wondered whether the group was likely to translate its end-of-times religious fervor into violence.

Brasher has been tracking Concerned Christians since well before their exodus to the Holy Land, watching Internet traffic about the group and gathering tips sent to her by friends and contacts. She had also watched tapes-and read transcripts of Miller's sermons to his followers.

"Certainly, this group had a sort of violent, apocalyptic focus as part of their end-of-times scenario," Brasher said. "But a lot of people who are fundamentalist Christians in particular hold those views; so just the fact that they hold a belief in a violent final judgment does not distinguish them in any kind of dramatic way." [Could Ms. Brasher be essentially a "Cult Apologist"?].

Phoenix-based cult expert Rick Ross also been tracking Miller's group for several months. He said that although the emergence of the cult and its millennium-inspired plans do not come as a surprise to him, they do represent a larger threat that he thinks Israeli authorities were wise to address.

"It's a serious problem for the Israeli government. I think they were prudent to move on the side of caution and arrest those people," Ross told Jewish News this week.

Ross commended the Israelis for setting up, well in advance of the recent arrests, a security task force to monitor those who might engage in acts of violence connected with the arrival of the new millennium, taking special precautions at holy sites in Jerusalem and other cities.

Ross has been tracking cults since 1982. The Valley native runs, a Web site devoted to the subject, and has taught classes on cult activities through the local Bureau of Jewish Education. Ross said there are currently [thousands of] groups in existence that could be considered cults, and he has traveled throughout the world to help families trying to free relatives from cult influences.

Since they are already dealing with tensions relating to the peace process, Ross said, Israeli officials are justifiably concerned about apocalyptic groups attempting to create havoc at holy sites such as the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. He said groups such as Concerned Christians capitalize on tense times to attract and retain members, and the cults' usual doomsday themes now are being reinforced by other fears, such as what will happen when computers around the world fail to recognize the year 2000.

Ross said the Y2K crisis is feeding into the needs of those who might seek out a cult for safety and protection in times of uncertainty. "It allows the cults to attract members by promoting a crisis mentality.

Ross doesn't foresee a change in the way cults operate regardless of how the coming year's events play out. "They'll just re-spin their prophecies when the end of the world doesn't come in 2000 and claim that catastrophe is still waiting to happen down the road," he said.

Reports that the Concerned Christians cult had isolated itself from family and personal connections in Colorado were legitimate cause for concern, Brasher acknowledged, but she contends these have been exaggerated.

Brasher consulted with several family Members of Concerned Christians during her months in Israel and learned that cult members had isolated themselves to a degree, but used a regular stream of e-mail messages and "remailed" letters (mail posted from an address other than where the sender actually resides) to keep in touch with family members. Brasher believes that Israeli authorities would have been better advised to learn more about the group and its intentions, and strive to make contact with it, before making arrests and initiating deportations.

The Israeli response of rounding up the members in a lightning-quick raid "was a little too Waco for me," Brasher said, referring to the disastrous confrontation between U.S. federal agents and cult members in Texas. Her main concern, she said, is not protecting the rights of the cult but the possibility that such a harsh response might backfire.

Brasher warns that the cult now has a tangible cause for whatever paranoid feelings it s members might have had earlier.

"This doesn't mean that you should just abandon civil order with regard to some of these groups. But ... I do think there are procedures and policies that would tend to propel them toward a more peaceful resolution."

Brasher stressed that she sympathizes with the fears Israel has over the approach of the year 2000 and the possibility it will bring Israel an avalanche of religious madness. She is not convinced, however, that the situation will be nearly so dire as some predictions.

That's not to say that "millennial fever," as she calls it, isn't already heating up, especially among American fundamentalist and evangelical groups.

"It's going to be a very interesting period in the history of Israel," Brasher said.

Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this report.


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