Israel’s arrest and expected deportation of members of a Denver-based Christian apocalyptic group has focused the spotlight on the government’s growing fear of violence from visiting doomsday believers as the millennium draws nearer.
But Sunday’s dramatic police raid of members of the group called Concerned Christians has also raised concerns from American religion experts who say Israel may have overreacted in this case.
They also say Israel may be in danger of violating the religious freedoms of some of the millions of Christian pilgrims who are expected to visit the Holy Land during the next 24 months believing that Jesus will reappear in Jerusalem, signaling the End of Days.
Dr. Brenda Brasher, an expert on millennial groups who since the summer has been advising Israeli police on the issue, told The Jewish Week she believed police mishandled the Concerned Christians case.
“What really bothers me ... is that it’s possible the propensity for violence will have increased directly as a result of what the police have done,” said Brasher, an associate on the advisory board at the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University.
Israel’s anti-cult task force arrested eight adults and six children belonging to Concerned Christians claiming the group was planning violence in Jerusalem to hasten the second coming of Jesus.
The group of 14, which vanished from Denver in October with about 50 fellow cult members, had been living quietly in the Jerusalem neighborhoods for the last several weeks.
“They planned to carry out violent and extreme acts in the streets of Jerusalem at the end of 1999 to start the process of bringing Jesus back to life,” said Brig. Gen. Elihu Ben-Onn, the national police spokesman.
Police, who had been monitoring the group for a month, said members believed that being killed by police would “lead them to heaven.” Targets of possible violence, according to police, included the Temple Mount.
Police did not explain what their evidence was.
Brasher said she told police during a consulting meeting in Israel last month there was no evidence the group was violent. “I don’t know where they [the police] are getting this from,” she said.
Denver Police Det. Mark Roggeman, an expert on the Concerned Christians, told The Jewish Week he also believes Israeli police apparently overreacted.
He said they probably wiretapped the group’s homes and may have misunderstood the apocalyptic language used by members in discussing their belief about the destructive events predicted during Armageddon, as written in chapter 11 in the New Testament’s Book of Revelations.
“They probably overheard the same rhetoric I’ve been hearing for years, and they took it to its worst-case scenario,” Roggeman said.
Roggeman added that in the six years he has been following the cult group, it did not display violent tendencies.
At issue, according to Israeli police and cult experts, is a statement by 44-year-old Concerned Christians leader Monte Kim Miller, a former Proctor & Gamble marketing employee, that he expects to die a violent death in Jerusalem this year and be resurrected three days later. (Miller was not among those arrested in Jerusalem. His whereabouts, and those of about 64 other members who disappeared from Denver last October, remain unknown.)
Brasher dismissed Miller’s death statement as typical rhetoric from those who believe the end of the world is coming in 2000, or 2001. She disputes he used the word violent.
But others take it quite seriously. And they say Miller is increasingly exhibiting the same kind of qualities of other dangerous cult leaders, like David Koresh of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, or Heaven’s Gate leader Marshall Applewhite.
“They are a cult, and part of the definition of a cult is the potential for this kind of violence when they follow a leader who makes such statements,” said New York City cult expert Marcia Rudin.
Rudin, like others, sympathized with Israel over its fear of being invaded by legions of fervent messianists waiting for Jesus to reappear, and what will happen if he doesn’t.
“The Israeli government is in a bad position,” said Rudin. “It doesn’t want to look like it is hitting on minority religions, but it doesn’t want more violence than it already has.”
Dr. Herbert Nieburg, a psychologist who studies the behavior of millennial groups, said they generally are not violent to others, just to themselves. If the expected cosmic event fails to occur, they generally accept the situation and go back to their lives.
Nieburg said he thought it was possible the Israelis were making an example of the Concerned Christians to warn other millennial groups headed for Israel that the government would not tolerate violence. “This might be their pre-emptive strike,” he said.
But he said the Concerned Christians have also exhibited some strange cult traits, such as suddenly selling their Denver homes and leaving their relatives.
Miller, according to Nieburg, also acts increasingly like a dangerous cult leader: He believes he channels the word of God, and that he is the last prophet before the world’s destruction. He has also increased his hold on his followers, a diverse group including white-collar professionals and unemployed laborers, whites and blacks, senior citizens and children. The exact size of the cult is not known but is believed to be about 78. Guesses as to the whereabouts of Miller and other followers include Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, Toronto or Libya.
In a Jerusalem court Monday, three cult members denied they were planning any violence. Their attorney, Eran Avital, said he was not allowed to see much of the evidence against his clients.
Brasher said she believed there would be more violence from Evangelical Christians trying to proselytize Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall than from Christian millennial groups in the coming months.
But Rudin said: “We predict a big increase in violence with the coming of the millennium among these groups. It seems to be a part of their theology that violence will bring on the end.”
She and Nieburg warned that it is not just groups who pose a threat but individuals who suffer from a condition dubbed “Jerusalem Syndrome,” a mental disorder on the rise in Israel where Christian pilgrims are stirred into a psychotic state.
“Maybe the Israelis are saying, ‘let’s put a stop to it,’” Nieburg said.
But Martin Marty, a religion professor in Chicago, said Israel must make the distinction between those pilgrims just waiting for something to happen, and those who think they must make it happen.
Unless officials have concrete evidence to violence, they should not be persecuted for their religious ideas, he said
Meanwhile, the New York Jewish Community Relations Council’s Task Force on Missionaries and Cults is sponsoring a symposium Jan. 21 on the impact of the second millennium on Israel and Jews around the world.
Task force director Philip Abramowitz said the conference was planned months ago to raise concerns about a possible backlash against Jews.
“Based on past experience after the first millennium when many Jews were slaughtered after Jesus did not appear, we wanted to educate Jewish leaders about what to expect this time,” he said.