Cult arrests, deportation orders provoke concerns

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JERUSALEM — With the countdown to the year 2000 under way, Israel took its first action this week to stem disturbances by Christian pilgrims visiting for the millennium, prompting mixed reaction from cult experts and Christian leaders.

On Sunday, Israeli police arrested members of Concerned Christians, a Denver-based apocalyptic cult. They were suspected of planning violent actions in the coming year in order to try to bring about the second coming of Jesus.

Capping a surveillance operation that lasted several months, Israeli security forces detained eight members of the cult and six of their children.

As police continue to investigate three main suspects, the others were given three days to appeal deportation orders.

David Parsons, a media officer for the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, isn't faulting the Israeli government for arresting the cult members.

"I do think the government is fully justified in deporting them at this time. There is an underlying concern about the things [cult leader] Monte Kim Miller has said and the control he seems to exert over his followers, and I can't blame Israel for wanting to be rid of the threat they pose," Parsons said.

Still, Parsons said he deplored any attempt to portray Christians in a bad light. TV reports of the arrests showed other Christian pilgrims parading on the Via Dolorosa.

"Our concern is for the attitude of Israelis towards the millions of peaceful Christian visitors coming here for the next two to three years. Israel has an opportunity to win many new friends."

Brenda E. Brasher, a leading American expert on Christian millennial cults who met with Israeli police and intelligence officials last month, was more critical of Israel.

The Israeli response of rounding up the members in a lightning-quick raid "was a little too Waco for me," Brasher says bluntly in a reference to the disastrous 1993 confrontation between U.S. federal agents and cult members in Texas.

Her main worry is not for the rights of the Concerned Christians themselves, but for the possibility that such a harsh response might backfire on the Israelis.

Those still free, Brasher warns, now have a tangible cause for whatever paranoid feelings they might have had earlier.

She has been tracking Concerned Christians since well before their exodus to the Holy Land, watching Internet traffic about the group and gathering tips sent to her by friends and contacts. She had also watched tapes and read transcripts of Miller's sermons to his followers.

"Certainly, this group had a sort of violent, apocalyptic focus as part of their end-of-times scenario," said Brasher, a professor of religion at Ohio's Mount Union College who is also associated with Boston University's Center for Millennial Studies.

"But a lot of people who are fundamentalist Christians in particular hold those views, so just the fact that they hold a belief in a violent final judgment does not distinguish them in any kind of dramatic way."

Israeli authorities, she said, would have been better advised to learn more about Concerned Christians and strive to make contact with them before arresting some of its members and beginning deportation proceedings.

"There is freedom of movement in Israel, there is freedom of religion," Brasher said. "I certainly don't know everything about the group that the Israelis know, but as far as I know this group has not broken any laws. They are not normal, that's true, it's an unusual group, but so far they don't seem don't seem to have done anything illegal. It just seems to me that there was a lot more that was needed to be known."

The police roundup was the first by a special task force created to deal with possible dangerous elements among the hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims expected to flock to the Holy Land for celebrations marking the second millennium. The task force was established in conjunction with the Shin Bet domestic security service and the Mossad foreign intelligence service.

In another attempt to prevent problems at holy sites, Israeli officials announced this week they are planning to install cameras and other security equipment in Jerusalem's Al-Aksa Mosque.

At a detention hearing Monday for three of the cult members, police said the suspects pose a threat to public order and could face charges of conspiracy to commit a crime. All denied the allegations against them.

"I am not here to hurt anybody," said John Bayles of Denver. The two other men were identified by their lawyer as Terry Smith of Eagle, Colo., and Eric Malesic, 36, of Westminster, a Denver suburb.

Israeli security officials began their investigation after receiving information from the FBI that 78 members of the cult had disappeared from their homes in the Denver area in October.

Miller, 44, head of the Concerned Christians, has declared he will die in the streets of Jerusalem in 1999. He was not among those arrested by Israeli police.

Guesses as to the whereabouts of Miller and his other followers range from Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula to Toronto to Libya.

According to reports, the cult members did not resist when police raided their homes in the Jerusalem suburbs of Mevasseret Zion and Motza.

Israelis who lived next door to the cult members described their neighbors as polite, but added that they kept to themselves.

Neighbor Rami Hanono of Mevasseret said the children didn't appear to be attending school. But overall he liked his neighbors.

"They were so nice, so quiet, so polite."