A New Y2K Problem: The Jerusalem Syndrome

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Authorities in Israel are getting ready for a particular kind of millennium bug: a major outbreak of the Jerusalem Syndrome. On Monday, clergymen and officials met in the city to discuss how to cope and deal with the thousands of visitors -- perhaps as many as 40,000 -- who will come down with religious delusions when some 4 million Christian pilgrims start converging on the Holy Land for the year 2000 celebrations. The syndrome, in which visitors imagine they are biblical figures and act out their religious visions, is not uncommon in ordinary years. Authorities fear it could become a major problem when 2000 arrives.

"You donít have to go to Jerusalem to find people who think they are Jesus or Moses," says TIME medical columnist Christine Gorman. The problem in the Holy Land, however, is that the beauty, the history and the associations of the region can be awesome. "I have never heard of anyone going to the Holy Land," says TIME senior religion reporter Emily Mitchell, "who was not overwhelmed by the emotions it engendered. That can put a severe strain on some mentally fragile people." While cynics may be prone to smirk over the Jerusalem Syndrome, itís important to remember one thing, says Gorman: "It is not religious experience that makes you more prone to mental illness. Rather itís the other way around: If someone already suffers from an underlying mental illness, then it is possible that having a profoundly emotional or spiritual experience can trigger a religious delusion and its acting out."