Jerusalem is an uneasy melting-pot of religions at the best of times. But as a growing number of millennial cults take up residence in the city, there are fears that their apocalyptic prophecies may prove self-fulfilling. Patrick Cockburn reports from Israel. Photographs by Ariel Jerozolimski
Just outside Jerusalem in the Palestinian village of Bethany, where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, a hundred born-again Christians, mostly American, are waiting patiently for the end of the world. It may not happen exactly on the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus but already they see signs in everything from Aids to Kosovo that the day of judgement is at hand.

Raymond (members of the informal group don't use their family names, but call each other "brother" and "sister") was in jail in California three years ago when God told him to go to Jerusalem. Raymond says: "I used to be a thief and not a very good one - I spent most of my life between the ages of 13 and 24 in criminal institutions." His thin face takes on a look of pious rapture as he recalls how the spirit of God entered into him as he lay in his prison cell. "Suddenly I had a life within me," he recalls. Six weeks later he was on a plane to Israel.

Raymond cites prophecies from the Old Testament and Book of Revelations. The number of earthquakes is increasing and he has just discovered that the Mount of Olives, where many believe the first signs of judgement day will appear, is split by a geological fault. God has also given him a more personal sign. Raymond stretches out his left arm, its skin covered in crude blue and green tattoos. He explains: "I was tattooing a skull on my arm when a prison guard confiscated my tattoo gun. Now people in Bethany tell me the lines of the half-finished drawing form the letters of the word God in Arabic."

His wife Keren, whom he married after arriving in Jerusalem, sits beside him on the sofa in a small stone house heaped with piles of blankets and clothing that they distribute to 80 poor families in Bethany. She also has a dramatic story to tell. She says: "I used to be showgirl in Las Vegas when I heard a sermon by [the evangelist] Billy Graham on television." She became a born-again Christian. She moved to Florida and worked in a shop until she too heard a call from God to go to Jerusalem. At weekly prayer meetings in Bethany she performs religious dances, while Raymond recites his poetry. He says, "God writes and I am his pencil."

The unofficial leader of the group is Brother David from New York, a former dealer in trailer lots who came to Jerusalem in 1980. An engaging, gangly man, he repeats the prophecies of Revelations about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the Seven Seals and the Mark of the Beast. But he is also very American in his choice of signs that the end of all things is at hand: he believes God has sent journalists to interview him. For the first 18 years he lived in Jerusalem nobody paid him much attention. "In that time I gave just six interviews. Then AP [a news agency] interviewed me last year [about the Second Coming]. The day after that appeared I had 19 other requests for interviews on my answering machine."

At the group's previous prayer meeting there were three television crews. Beside Brother David in a large airy room overlooking the outskirts of Jerusalem sits Kathy, a recent convert, who came to Bethany after seeing David on CNN.

The real reason for the intense journalistic interest in Brother David is, however, rather different. He and his group fit in perfectly with the media's vision of the Apocalypse and the millennium. This owes more to memories of the fiery destruction of the Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas, in 1993 than anything in the Bible. In this picture any Christian cult, however outwardly benign, which sees signs and makes prophecies, is a potential time bomb. And this time, they believe, the backdrop will not be an obscure town in Texas, but Jerusalem - a city sacred to Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. It is an irresistible story.

The Bethany group denies that they have come to Jerusalem just for the millennium. Indeed, Sharon, Raymond's mother, is contemptuous of those who think the group "are waiting for 31 December 1999". With surprising matter-of-factness she points out that the date of the birth of Jesus - fixed by a Scythian monk living in Rome in the sixth century - is known to be wrong. If Jesus was born in the last days of King Herod, as reported in the gospel of Matthew, then the millennium should have been celebrated four or five years ago.

None of these chronological details are likely to worry the visitors who are beginning to pour into Jerusalem to celebrate the anniversary of Christ's birth. Over the next 18 months there may be as many as four million of them, though the Israeli Tourism Ministry believes the real figure will be closer to 1.5 million because that is all that local hotels and hostels can accommodate. The Pope has called for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and is expected to celebrate mass in the Holy City next year.

Jerusalem is a small city with a population of 650,000. It is always on the edge of violence and nobody knows the impact of these vast numbers on relations between its different communities. Fundamentalist believers in Revelations like those at Bethany may be small in number, but Gershom Gorenberg, a specialist in millennial movements, says what they believe "is only an intense version of the beliefs held by millions".

What if some sect from Idaho decided to give the day of judgement a nudge forward by blowing up the great Muslim shrine of the Dome of the Rock? In 1969 a deranged Australian fundamentalist named Michael Rohan decided to clear the way for the Third Temple (the Second was destroyed by the Romans in 70AD) and set fire to al-Aqsa mosque where the scorch marks can still be seen.

In January this year the Israeli police briefly imagined that their worst fears were being realised. Some 56 members of an apocalyptic sect called The Concerned Christians, under the leadership of Monte Kim Miller, left their base in Denver, Colorado, heading for Jerusalem. Their aims were unclear but Miller had previously said, "Jesus died on the cross and we have a duty to die. The Lord's judgement has been with the Earth for 2,000 years and now judgement is ready to begin."

US authorities said Miller believed he was a reincarnation of Jesus and a channel for the word of God. He had told followers he would die in the streets of Jerusalem and be reincarnated three days later.

Miller did not have a good record for prophetic accuracy. He had predicted that Denver would be destroyed on 10 October 1998. But the Jerusalem police did not intend to wait to find out just how literally his words should be taken. Just after the New Year they arrested 14 Concerned Christians, claiming, "They intended to carry out extreme acts of violence in the streets of Jerusalem towards the end of 1999 with the aim of beginning a process that would bring about the second coming of Jesus." The Concerned Christians were deported back to the US.

Gorenberg believes the police may have over-reacted. Israeli security forces admitted that they knew little about millennial cults. Nor is there a definable line between Christians visiting Jerusalem, who believe in a general sense in the Second Coming, and those who believe that God wants them to do something to bring it about.

"Jerusalem is a city charged with religious feeling," says Father Sephane Joulain, a French priest at St Anne's, a Crusader church on the Via Dolorosa down which Jesus reputedly carried the Cross. "People feel that here they have a direct connection with heaven. Some take the imagery of the Book of Revelations seriously. Others are emotionally fragile: in one week three different women visiting Jerusalem said they believed they were the Virgin Mary."

Father Joulain is largely dismissive about the risk of millennial violence. He says the real danger facing visitors is more prosaic. Jerusalem is notorious for the skill and number of its pickpockets. Parties of Christians making their way to the Garden of Gethsemane or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre provide easy pickings. Usually the gangs work in groups of three, one diverting the visitor by trying to sell postcards while the other two steal wallets and purses. One notorious group of about 30 thieves is known locally as the Via Dolorosa Gang after the street where they normally operate. They do not lack confidence. Soon after Father Joulain first came to Jerusalem their leader politely introduced himself, saying, "I am the head of thieves and drug dealers around here."

The danger in Jerusalem is less Christian fundamentalism than a lethal blend of nationalism and religion. Officially it is the eternal capital of Israel since the Israeli army conquered Palestinian east Jerusalem in 1967. Bulldozers immediately destroyed the old Arab houses in front of the Western Wall, the remains of the Temple platform built by Herod, where Jews traditionally pray. Others in the Israeli army had even more radical ideas. One senior officer, the late General Uzi Narkiss, recalled meeting Rabbi Shlomo Goren, the chief army chaplain, just after the army took over. "Uzi," Rabbi Goren said to him, "this is the time to stick 100kg of explosives in the Mosque of Omar [the Dome of the Rock] and that's it. Once and for all we'll be done with it." General Narkiss demurred, choking off Goren by saying, "Rabbi, if you don't stop I'll take you from here to jail."

Rabbi Goren was not alone in wanting a complete Jewish takeover. Small but violent Jewish movements - the cutting-edge of the settlers who moved into the West Bank - saw military victory in 1967 as a sign that God was returning Jerusalem and all of ancient Judea and Samaria to the Jews. Meir Kahane, a leader of the Jewish extreme right, expected the coming of the Messiah 40 years after the foundation of the state of Israel. Gorenberg argues that when the Messianic vision was "torn up before their eyes" by the Oslo accords of 1993, which proposed returning much of Judea and Samaria (West Bank) to the Palestinians, the most radical settlers resorted to extreme violence. Within a year Baruch Goldstein, a settler in Hebron, walked into the al- Ibrahimi mosque in the town and fired his sub-machine gun into the backs of worshippers, killing 29 of them.

No city in the world is as fought over as Jerusalem and all its communities are deeply sensitive about their "rights". Jewish settlers take over houses in the Old City and Palestinians resist them street by street. The very presence of more than a million Roman Catholic pilgrims next year is resented by some rabbis because it strengthens the idea of Jerusalem as an international religious capital and diminishes its status as the capital of Israel.

When the municipality tried to issue a medal to commemorate the conquest of the city by King David 3,000 years ago, ultra-orthodox rabbis protested vigorously. They said they had noticed that the design of the coin showed the crucifixes on top of the onion domes of the Russian Church on the Mount of Olives. They had them removed from the coin.

Jews, Christians and Muslims share a sense that in Jerusalem, alone of any city in the world, the age of miracles is not yet dead. Earlier this month, for instance, a rumour spread through the city's ultra-orthodox streets, where men still wear the black hats and coats that originated in 19th-century Poland. It was said that God had given a sign within the Dome of the Rock, once the site of the Second Temple.

The stone where Abraham had prepared to sacrifice Isaac had gushed water for the first time in 1,500 years. Muslims were depressed because the Koran predicted that the appearance of such a spring would signal good news for the Jews. Yehoshua Sheinberg, an ultra-orthodox rabbi, had no doubt about this events meaning for Jews. He said: "This is a great miracle, especially in a drought year such as this one. We believe the redemption has begun ... ".