September 30, 1994
JERUSALEM (AP) -- Be it mountain air, mental disorders or messages from God -- something is convincing hundreds of visitors to Jerusalem they are Jesus, John the Baptist or King David reborn.
Local experts have diagnosed the visitors to the holy city with the "Jerusalem Syndrome," first recognized 14 years ago.
Yair Bar-El, who has treated 470 tourists with the syndrome, thinks would-be prophets are a growth industry with the approach of the year 2000.
"We know that every millennium there is an increase in religious feelings,"
said Bar-El, director of the Kfar Shaul psychiatric hospital, the most common address for syndrome sufferers.
Another possible stimulant is the charged political atmosphere as peace talks veer toward the explosive issue of the future of a city holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians.
While the majority of his patients had a history of mental disorders, 42 were regular tourists who suddenly donned hotel sheets or other makeshift clothing and took to the streets, preaching repentance, forgiveness and peace. A religious upbringing was common.
Most arrived in tour groups but gradually became withdrawn, bathing obsessively to purify themselves and attempting to spread what they believed to be the suddenly revealed word of God, Bar-El said.
Usually patients recover in a week with medication and psychiatric care, he said.
Christians lean toward assuming the identities of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary or John the Baptist. Jews prefer Hebrew heroes like Moses, Samson or King David. Muslims stick to saying they are the Messiah.
Police said disorientation is the key sign that something is amiss.
"They don't know where they are," said Victor Wadahakar, assistant head of Jerusalem's tourist police. "They don't have a proper explanation, like a normal person."
Wadahakar said one 65-year-old German woman wandered away from her husband while touring the Old City last year and was found the next day near Bethlehem, 6 miles south. She said a divine voice commanded her to walk in that direction.
Another woman, a New York City teacher, abandoned her tour group only to be discovered chanting spirituals in a toga as she headed toward the Via Dolorosa, the route Jesus trod with the cross to his crucifixion.
Rev. Colin Morton, of Jerusalem's St. Andrew's Scots Memorial Church, said he has met people who believed they were Elijah the Prophet, John the Baptist or Jesus.
"You do get quite a number of people who feel that they have received special missions and messages from God," Morton said.
Most experts believe the effect is sparked by the shock of seeing a bustling, modern city instead of the sanctity many expected.
"Even walking down the Via Dolorosa there are shops, people hawking their wares," said Clarence Wagner Jr., international director of Bridges for Peace, a group promoting Christian-Jewish understanding. "They can't put the two images together -- what their expectations were and what they are actually seeing."
The interplay of mystical and mercantile was evident this week at the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism.
Dor Shurin, a fixture at the site, said he briefly believed he was the Messiah five years ago.
"Deep down I know I can't be," he sighed. "There are so many half-crazies like myself thinking they're the Messiah."
But Shurin is convinced the real savior will eventually materialize here, so no claimants should be ruled out of hand.
The syndrome can be dangerous.
Australian tourist Michael Denis Rohen, 28, tried to burn down the Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam's third-holiest shrine, in August 1969, saying it was a mission from God. He told acquaintances it would clear the way for the second coming of the Messiah when the Jewish temple was rebuilt on the site.