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Tuesday, June 15, 1999 Published at 11:17 GMT 12:17 UK

World: Middle East

Jerusalem braces for 'biblical' visitors

The city's spiritual atmosphere may trigger the delusions

Jerusalem's religious leaders and public officials have met to discuss measures to combat the expected sharp rise in cases of "Jerusalem Syndrome" in the run-up to the millennium.

People afflicted by the syndrome - almost exclusively pilgrims - suddenly imagine themselves to be biblical figures or feel compelled to start preaching on the streets of the city.

Bridges for Peace, a group that advocates closer links between Christian groups and Jerusalem, called the meeting over fears that syndrome sufferers could spoil the city's celebration of the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Christ.

Jesus, Moses or the Virgin Mary

The group's director, Clarence Wagner, said: "There are feelings that this could turn a national celebration into a national nightmare."

The concerns have been given added weight by the man who first diagnosed the condition, Dr Yair Barel, a mental health expert based in Jerusalem.

[ image: Concerned Christians are deported to the US]
Concerned Christians are deported to the US
He predicts as many as 40,000 visitors to the city will be affected by religious delusions during the millennium celebrations - roughly one in every 100 pilgrims of the four million who are expected to visit.

Dr Barel first identified Jerusalem Syndrome in 1982. People most frequently believe they are Jesus, Moses or the Virgin Mary, but several King Davids and at least one Mary Magdalene have also been recorded.

Some sufferers arrive in Jerusalem with psychiatric conditions which are heightened or triggered by the spiritual atmosphere in the city.

Others arrive with no history of mental problems, but find themselves overcome with the urge to preach or sing psalms in public while dressed in white robes - often bed sheets from their hotel.

Violent religious cults

"The danger exists that someone will try to do something very violent," Dr Barel said, adding that he thought as many as 800 pilgrims could be hospitalised as a result of the syndrome.

During the meeting on Monday, religious leaders attempted to play down the significance of Jerusalem Syndrome. The Pope's cultural attache to Israel, Monsignor Richard Mathes, said he had only witnessed two cases of the syndrome in 20 years.

But those who attended the meeting expressed concern that violent religious cults could descend on the city for the millennium.

In January, Israel deported 14 members of an US-based Christian doomsday cult - the Concerned Christians - who were accused of plotting attacks on sacred sites in Jerusalem.

The group - including six children - was suspected of planning unspecified "extreme acts of violence" in an attempt to hasten the second coming of Jesus, Israeli police said.

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