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Tuesday, July 27, 1999 Published at 13:23 GMT 14:23 UK


World: Middle East

Jerusalem's 40,000 prophets

Ernest Moch from California... or Elijah the Prophet?

By BBC Jerusalem Correspondent, Hilary Andersson

Every year tourists flock to Jerusalem in vast numbers to see the religious sites unique to the ancient Holy City, and to experience the aura of the mystical town where Christ lived and died.


Hilary Andersson reports from the streets of Jerusalem
But for some walking through the sites of biblical legends proves overwhelming.

Most days, a man with a long white beard can be seen sitting at a roadside cafe in Jerusalem, with his briefcase perched next him.

In bright orange letters it bears his name: "The Prophet Elijah".

He has the symptoms of an illness called Jerusalem Syndrome, which afflicts one per cent of tourists who visit the city.


[ image: The Prophet Elijah proclaims his identity]
The Prophet Elijah proclaims his identity
Born in California as Ernest Moch, he is now known as Elijah and is convinced that he is a reincarnation of the original Prophet Elijah from the Bible.

He says God called him to this city - and to his destiny here in Jerusalem.

"I feel I'm at home here. I am Israelite and this is a city of God", he says.

Unusual views

Elijah lives in a cheap hostel in Jerusalem's old city, and he insists people had visions of him before he even arrived here in 1980s.

Since he has been here he has spent his days awaiting God's next command, or preaching to passers by about the evils of our world.


[ image: Reconstructions of biblical scenes cause high emotion]
Reconstructions of biblical scenes cause high emotion
He is not alone. In the Petra Hostel where he lives another man prances on the roof naked, claiming to be the Messiah.

"A lot of the time you book people in that look pretty normal; it's only when they sit down to talk that you find out they have unusual views," says Avi Esbach, the receptionist.

Dr Bar El, a psychiatrist at one of Jerusalem's main mental hospitals, Kfar Shaul, first diagnosed the condition of Jerusalem Syndrome in the 1980s.

He has treated several Jesus Christs, a Virgin Mary or two, and Samson. The Holy City, he says, attracts the vulnerable.


[ image: Dr Bar El diagnosed Jerusalem Syndrome in the 1980s]
Dr Bar El diagnosed Jerusalem Syndrome in the 1980s
"Jerusalem is like a magnet that attracts people, some of them mentally ill, some of them with deep religious convictions; strange, rare persons", he explains.

Jerusalem Syndrome however can also affect the perfectly sane.

"Completely sane people arrive here as normal tourists and here they develop a specific type of Jerusalem Syndrome," says Dr Bar El.

Cleansing rituals

It is easy to spot them. After the afflicted decide they are a prophet, they start washing profusely and clipping their toe nails in a cleansing ritual.

Next they put on white clothes - hotel bed sheets often do the job - go to the Holy Sites and preach.


[ image: Biblical associations can be too much for tourists]
Biblical associations can be too much for tourists
These tourists, Dr Bar El says, are confused between the Jerusalem they have read about and the reality.

"They come here with an ideal and unconscious image of the holy places in Jerusalem, and when they see the real holy places they can't cope. They develop this psychotic reaction to build a bridge between these different images of Jerusalem", says Dr Bar El.

Those who were brought up on the Bible are apparently more vulnerable, as are Protestants, who focus all their attention on Jesus Christ and his life, rather than on the Saints and the Virgin Mary.

Some victims are treated at Kfar Shaul mental hospital and they are usually found to be harmless. Most recover in a matter of days, and continue with their holiday embarrassed at what has happened.


[ image: Kfar Shaul hospital treats many of the victims]
Kfar Shaul hospital treats many of the victims
Recipe for confusion

"Elijah" is not a classic case. He has been preaching as the Prophet Elijah for almost 20 years. He has heard of Jerusalem Syndrome but still insists he is different.

"People call me a fool, they say I'm disillusioned, but I can't deny that God spoke to me and said your name is Elijah. I have people all over the world who walk up to me and say we know who you are."

When Elijah preaches away no-one pays much attention. But four million tourists are expected here for the millennium, and if the usual percentage gets the syndrome, around 40,000 biblical figures could be wandering the streets. This is a recipe at the very least for confusion.

And besides - what if a real prophet turns up, or indeed God himself? We would surely all call him mad.



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