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Monday, October 25, 1999 Published at 20:00 GMT 21:00 UK

World: Middle East

Christian 'cult' detained in Israel

Members of the Christian group were driven to an Israeli prison

Israeli police have detained 21 Christians suspected of planning to commit violent acts to mark the end of the millennium.

The authorities plan to deport the group of foreigners, mostly Americans, within days.

The group lived on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. They were arrested at midnight on Sunday and then driven to a prison in the town of Ramle in central Israel.

A police spokesman expressed concern that the group was paving the way for other Christian groups to settle in Israel.

Their arrests marked the third time since January that Israel has detained Christian groups.

'Christ's return'

Israel radio reported that the police suspected the group was planning mass suicide or other dangerous acts.

But group members have said that they oppose violence.

A leader of the group, Brother David, said they were arrested "because we speak the truth and Israel is about to hear the truth in a greater way than ever before".

He said he was a former trailer park owner from Syracuse, New York, and believes that Jesus will return soon.

Sister Sharon, 53, of Sacramento, California, said she had just returned from her son's house when police knocked on her door.

"When I got outside, they told me I was getting arrested. The street was full of police," said Sharon.

Apocalyptic groups

She said those detained included Christians from the US, Australia, England and Spain.

This was the third time since January that Israel has detained Christian groups. The authorities fear that as the millennium approaches, the country will become the focus of apocalyptic groups.

Some commentators believe that the Israeli authorities are ill-prepared for an influx of religious zealots to a city where any perceived threat to sites holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians can spark violence.

But there is also concern that a crackdown on such groups will backfire and that pilgrims will be deterred from visiting the Holy Land.

Israel says it now expects only 3 million visitors in 2000 - half its original estimate. Tourism officials have attributed the drop to poor marketing and security concerns.

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