JERUSALEM—Worried that a small but significant number of Christians will be seized with “millennium fever” during the next two years, Israeli officials say they are taking steps to deal with the challenge.
The need for such preparations was highlighted earlier this month when Israel deported more than a dozen members of the Denver-based Concerned Christian cult. According to police sources, the “doomsday” cult was planning to commit a violent act in Jerusalem toward the end of 1999, to hasten the second coming of Jesus.
Israel's security establishment is reportedly working closely with the FBI in order to identify potentially dangerous visitors, and has established a special unit to deal with millennium-related problems.
While mental-health officials are also gearing up for an influx of pilgrims — including those with delusions related to the millennium — they insist that only a tiny percentage of visitors will need their services.
“We're talking about a very small minority in a large number of Christians, perhaps 1% of the pilgrims,” said Dr. Yair Bar-El, director of Kfar Shaul psychiatric center in Jerusalem.
Bar-El, whose hospital treats many tourists, acknowledges that a trip to the Holy Land sometimes sets off an acute psychiatric reaction.
“There are pilgrims who have never had psychiatric problems who arrive here and suddenly develop ‘Jerusalem syndrome,’” he said. “It causes disorientation, but for no more than a week, and then the person recovers.”
Bar-El said that a second category of visitors arrives in the Holy Land with existing psychiatric problems, and often identify with Biblical figures. A third group, which may suffer from borderline psychiatric problems, come to the Holy Land in the belief that they can provoke some kind of change in the world through their actions.
Of the latter two categories, he said, “these are not the regular pilgrims who arrive every year to see the holy places. They're here to witness apocalyptic things, the Armageddon war, the resurrection of Jesus. If these things happen, OK, we've all entered a different world. If not, the people who arrived to witness these events could develop depression or be violent or suicidal.”
To help identify these individuals before they do harm to themselves or others, hospitals like Kfar Shaul are training others in the art of early detection.
“We are working with mental health teams in Jerusalem, training tour guides, police, the welfare department, to help them detect manifestations of psychiatric problems. It's important to detect and treat problems early,” Bar-El said.
Wadie Abunassar, executive director of the Catholic Chruch's Jubilee events for the year 2000, believes that few if any Catholics will develop “millennium fever,” due to the tenants of Catholicism.
Distinguishing Catholicism from non-mainstream churches, Abunassar said, “the Catholic theology is very clear; it is not talking about the year 2000 as the end of the world. We are emphasizing what is written, what Jesus told his apostles: that nobody has the right to know the timetable of God the Father, not even the son himself. Therefore, good believers shouldn't worry about the year 2000 or the year 3000. We must be ready at every moment.”
Abunassar, like many other Christians, regrets that the Concerned Christian cult and others like it could make local Muslims and Jews fearful of Christian pilgrims.
To counteract this fear, he said, the church is planning a campaign “to inform the local public that Christianity is not one sect or another. Christianity is one of the mainstream churches, and the mainstream is led mainly by the Catholic Church.”
Abunassar said that “these so-called Concerned Christians are not Christians in our estimation. These are individual fanatics that security system should stop as soon as possible.” (Michele Chabin)