CLARIFICATION: In most of yesterday's editions, a caption with a photograph of the arrest of American minister Bobby Bible in the Holy Land failed to indicate that he was being taken into custody by Palestinian police. (Published 01/01/2000) This occurred the day before he was arrested by Israeli police.
Every year since 1968, Bobby Bible has had a New Year's routine: He would camp out overnight in Pasadena, Calif., then drive his van behind the Rose Bowl parade's very last float, preaching gospel through loudspeakers to the thinning holiday crowd.
Bible, a Baptist minister from Los Angeles, had a radically different New Year's in mind for this millennium year. He stuffed $3,000 in his pocket, flew to Jerusalem and took a room on the Mount of Olives, steps away from the exact spot from which Jesus is said to have ascended after the crucifixion. There, Bible settled in so he could watch the skies part, Jesus appear and the faithful rise up to the heavens -- an event described in the Bible's First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians and known as "the rapture."
"This is the major event of my life," said Bible, 60, who changed his name when he became a born-again Christian. "We are at ground zero here on the Mount of Olives. I give [the rapture] a 30 percent chance of happening at midnight New Year's Eve."
Bible was hedging his bets. So were the Israeli police. About an hour after detailing his interpretation of scripture to a reporter over breakfast, Bible was arrested at his hotel and whisked off to police headquarters for the third time in a week. He told the hotel manager he was being deported, although the police denied they have made a decision.
As the clock ticks down to the millennium new year, Israeli police are scrambling to keep tabs on scores, if not hundreds, of people -- some simply devout, some also eccentric -- who are congregating in Jerusalem to await the dawn of a messianic era. Today on the Mount of Olives, where Bobby Bible was arrested, police vans crisscrossed the winding roads. Officers jumped out to pump their informants -- Arab guides and vendors -- for tidbits about the latest arrivals.
"From each 10 who come from the United States, four of them are . . . complicated," said one young Arab man, who elucidated his meaning by circling his index finger at his temple.
Israeli psychiatrists report an increase in cases of "Jerusalem Syndrome" -- travelers who, upon arriving in the holy city, are so overwhelmed to walk in Christ's footsteps that they lose themselves in psychotic episodes -- and occasionally believe they are Biblical figures.
Gregory Katz, a psychiatrist and director of the emergency room at the Jerusalem Mental Health Center, said he had handled more than 50 such cases by mid-December, compared with 35 to 40 in a typical year. "We don't go looking for them," he said. "The police bring them in."
Many of those gathering here, however, are mainstream Christian pilgrims from the United States, Europe and elsewhere, come to welcome in the new century in the city where the Bible says Christ died and was resurrected. Most attach no special significance to New Year's Eve itself, and many are reluctant to fasten their hopes on any particular date at all.
Still, a portion of these visitors share a basic belief that the year 2000 marks the beginning of the biblical "end of days" described in the Book of Revelation -- a sequence of earth-shattering and apocalyptic events that culminates in the return of Christ for a 1,000-year reign of the Kingdom of Heaven and a final battle between good and evil.
That prophesy is shared by millions around the world and has spawned an intense focus on the holy land as the new year approaches. One Internet site -- www.olivetree.org -- features a "MessiahCam" offering constantly updated photographic images of key Jerusalem sites where Jesus could appear. They include the Chapel of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives, the site from which Jesus is said to have departed Earth, and the Golden Gate in the eastern wall of the Old City, a blocked-off entryway through which it is believed Christ would reenter Jerusalem.
"The second coming is a central historical tenet of orthodox Christianity," said Christine Darg, an American evangelical who conceived the Web site a year ago. She reports 1,000 hits a day in recent weeks.
"We believe we're in the last days, for sure -- there's no doubt in our minds," said Adair White, an American woman from Michigan who, with her family, has spent six years in Israel awaiting the new millennium. "We're not here to make something happen, we just believe it's the safest place to be in the world when something does happen."
The presence of so many people with messianic beliefs has unnerved Israeli authorities. Mindful that they must turn a welcoming smile toward tourists, yet worried some visitors may be planning violence and unrest, jittery officials have issued contradictory signals.
"Even crazy people have the right to celebrate the year 2000," said Shlomo Ben-Ami, the public security minister, a former diplomat who has sought to project an image of tolerance. "It is possible to celebrate in an esoteric manner without being a threat."
But Israeli police and border officials have taken a hard line in some recent instances. This fall they deported a group of messianic Americans, some of whom, despite lacking visas, had been living on the Mount of Olives undisturbed for many years.
A few weeks later, authorities barred a group of Irish Christians who arrived aboard a cruise ship. Members of the group said they were manhandled and verbally abused, and there was little to support the initial contention of Israeli officials who said the group was extremist and represented a potential threat. Ireland protested the incident.
However, in some instances officials' concerns have been more widely shared. Earlier this year, the government expelled a group of Americans based in Denver who had arrived in Israel in preparation for the millennium. Known as the Concerned Christians, the group had spoken about the possibility of violence in Jerusalem as a means of hastening to second coming of the messiah.
"Israel has an incredibly difficult task," said Gershom Gorenberg, an Israeli journalist writing a book about the millennium. "It's in a position of taking care of a city that's sacred to so many conflicting groups. The potential for problems is immense . . . . But the policy certainly raises questions. We don't know fully what the basis of some of those decisions was."