Downturn in religious madness in Jerusalem | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 29.03.2013
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Downturn in religious madness in Jerusalem

The Jerusalem syndrome is unique: Previously healthy individuals are suddenly overcome by religious delusions when they visit the holy city. But the Internet may be causing the syndrome to disappear.

Man reenacting Jesus Christ's Road to Calvary in Jerusalem

Man reenacting Jesus Christ's Road to Calvary in Jerusalem

Shortly before the turn of the millennium in 1999, Mossad - Israel's main intelligence agency - created a task force called "Walking on Water," intended to prevent terrorist attacks in Jerusalem. But intelligence agents weren't just keeping an eye on the usual suspects. Instead, they were monitoring individual Christian fanatics as well as members of militant Christian sects.

This included 14 representatives of the "Concerned Christians" group based in Denver, Colorado, who - in anticipation of the Apocalypse and the return of the Messiah - had planned an attack on al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount while in Jerusalem. The 14 were arrested and expelled from the country.

Others stayed, including people who shrouded themselves in white tunics and made pilgrimages to holy sites while loudly singing and praying. They called themselves Peter, Paul, King Solomon, the Mother of God - even Jesus Christ. These were people afflicted by the Jerusalem Syndrome.

"The police and public officials - we were all completely alarmed," recalled Gregory Katz, director of the Kfar Shaul Mental Health Center in Jerusalem. His colleague and director of the clinic at the time, Jair Bar-El, were worried that of the four million tourists expected to travel to the city in the year 2000, up to 40,000 would be afflicted with the mental health disorder. But it didn't get quite that bad.

View over the Mount of Olives and Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem

The syndrome may have to do with the religiously saturated atmosphere in Jerusalem

Drop over last decade

On the contrary: Over the past 10 years, the number of people affected by the disorder has continued to drop. Even Easter does not seem to bring on the disorder like it used to. "It's been a long time since I've shaken hands with Jesus," noted Katz, who runs the emergency room at Kfar Shaul hospital. That development is of course a good thing, although it does pull the plug on further research of the syndrome.

Bar-El first noted the symptoms of this mental disorder in 1979. He categorized the afflicted into three groups: Type I are people who have a medical history, such as those suffering from schizophrenia. Type II are those who are susceptible to mental disorders, and who travel to Jerusalem with a fixed purpose. And finally, there's Type III: "People who are considered healthy, but become suddenly afflicted and, after six days of treatment, return to their normal lives, completely restored," Katz explained.

What they all have in common: They're from industrialized, Western countries, are frequently male and single, have a minimal level of education, and have been raised in strict Protestant households.

Internet kills the imagination

Scientists have been particularly fascinated with Type III. "We're interested in finding out how aware they are of their delusions," Katz said. After all, none of these people completely lose their minds. They can carry on normal conversations, and know their names. The problem: None of them are willing to answer questions following their treatment.

"They are ashamed and do not want to be reminded of their mental lapses," Katz noted. Now that fewer cases of the syndrome are cropping up, the chances of making a conclusive study are dwindling, Katz regrets. "That's frustrating."

Souvenir holograms of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary at a shop in Jerusalem's Old City Christian quarter

Jesus-themed souvenirs are, not surprisingly, a hit in Jerusalem

Katz blames the Internet for the noticeable drop in occurrence of the syndrome. The Internet has completely changed societies around the world, he noted. "It influences how we communicate, and it influences our feelings," he said. And that is precisely what the Jerusalem Syndrome is about.

Many of those afflicted come from overly pious families, where an imposed daily practice of praying actually ends up stripping them of their spirituality. "Impulses and emotions are suppressed," Katz said. For these people, traveling to Jerusalem is the fulfillment of a life-long dream. "They have developed pictures in their minds, notions of the holy sites - have imagined the religious atmosphere and experience here," he said.

In the past, travelers to Jerusalem had fewer sources to consult to see if their notions of the holy city were accurate. When they then arrived and discovered how different the divine place described in the Bible was from the real city in Israel, it prompted a kind of shock: They became afflicted with the syndrome, and in some cases a public risk.

"Nowadays, everyone knows everything beforehand because they've checked on the Internet," Katz said. There are no surprises anymore, and thus no shock ensues.

Jesus in a kilt

Nonetheless, Katz is convinced that some cases of Jerusalem Syndrome still exist - he just doesn't run into them anymore. "The people are usually cared for by the Christian groups, by pastors," he said, adding that that's why the Protestant Church itself should commission a study about the syndrome.

"That could be quite interesting," said Protestant pastor Michael Wohlrab, who supervises the Augusta Victoria church hospital on the Mount of Olives. He regularly receives visits from "The Chosen" - and also from a man from the German state of Saxony.

"He has long hair, wears sandals and a Scottish kilt, and says that he is Jesus," Wohlrab said. The man also claims that Mossad listens in on conversations between him and the pastor.

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