Jerusalem's Cops Play Apocalypse Busters

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Even more complex, perhaps, is the dilemma posed by the expected crush of tourists at Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Built above the site of Christ's crucifixion and tomb, the church has since 1852 been managed according to an uneasy truce imposed on six warring Christian factions by the Ottoman sultan who ruled Jerusalem at the time. Franciscan Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Egyptian Coptic, Syrian and Ethiopian sects each jealously guard their portion of the holy site, according the sultan's rules. But there is only one entrance to the church, which the Israeli authorities fear isn't enough for safety reasons — especially when an expected 17,000 candle-bearing worshipers pack the church at the Greek Orthodox Easter next April. But an Israeli proposal to open a second entrance has provoked a furious response from all but one of the Christian sects, who believe a second entrance will disrupt the balance of power at the ancient holy site. While Israel has resolved not to proceed without establishing a consensus, the authorities fear that the pressure of millennium tourism could create a tragedy.

But the primary concern for Israeli law enforcement is not as much accidental tragedy as man-made mayhem. In October, Israeli police deported 21 evangelical Christians who had taken up residence on the Mount of Olives — along the path Christ would take into the Old City, according to the prophecy of his Second Coming. Although they were generally regarded as a nonviolent group hoping to be among the first "raptured," Israel deported the believers — whose visas had expired — as "a threat to public order."

The expulsions underline the Jewish state's concern that fundamentalist Christians may seek to provoke acts of violence to speed the return of Christ at the dawning of the millennium. And there's some basis to that fear. While the millennium itself means little to mainstream Judaism or Islam, a number of evangelical Christians interpret biblical prophecies to mean that the Messiah's return must begin with an apocalyptic final conflict that begins in the Holy City. Israeli leaders are all too aware that anyone who wishes to provoke such a conflict need simply attack the Islamic holy sites on the Temple Mount.

Adding to the explosive brew are a number of Jewish extremists, who in their efforts to begin the rebuilding of the temple have been plotting to blow up Al Aqsa and the neighboring Dome of the Rock. Now, Israeli authorities fear a millennial convergence between the messianic visions of some evangelical Christian groups and those Jewish extremists. "Israeli police are most worried about Christian end-timers who believe that before Christ can return there has to be Armageddon," says Beyer. "Their intelligence suggests that some groups want to hasten the apocalypse by blowing up the Islamic holy sites on the Temple Mount in the hope that this would provoke a holy war between Muslims and Jews."

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