Leaders of an apocalyptic Christian group expelled from Israel last week say they were betrayed by Israeli police, whom they had been helping to identify potentially violent Christian extremists.
In an exclusive interview with The Jewish Week, the American-born Christians — three women and two men — also blamed the FBI for instigating Israeli police against evangelical Christians planning to witness the second coming of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem in the next millennium.
“We had been working with the Israeli police to help them to find anybody that might be planning to do something negative,” founder “Brother David” said Monday during a wide-ranging two-hour interview in an East Village bookstore/cafe.
He was speaking publicly for the first time since being deported Nov. 5 — the last of 21 members of his House of Prayer charity ministry to be evicted. The small Christian ministry had been providing clothes, food and housing to needy Palestinians and others, and arranging tours and lodging for Christian pilgrims.
Their deportation prompted international headlines and critics questioning Israel’s recent aggressive treatment of evangelical Christians.
“We were actually helping the police,” explained Brother David, a trim 58-year-old man sporting a black goatee and wearing a suit and tie.
A former Syracuse trailer park owner known as David Gardner, he was sharing a table in the book-lined eatery with a reporter and sect members Sharon Peterson; her son, Raymond Green, and wife Karen; and Al Klimek. They were living in Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, the spot where the faithful believe Jesus will return.
“We thought we were cooperating with them and all the time they were actually putting us in line for deportation,” Brother David said.
Klimek said he was paid by the Israeli government to take undercover police agents on tours of sites connected with the Apocalypse. “I personally have taken them on at least three or four tours around the Old City showing them Satanism in their midst,” said the intense 45-year-old. “The Israeli government actually paid 200 shekels under the table for these tours. They gave it to me the very night I was arrested.”
Klimek portrayed Israeli police as ignorant in dealing with potential threats from religious extremists.
“They don’t know what they’re looking for,” he said. “They don’t know the difference between a Catholic and a Pentecostal.”
A U.S.-based Israeli official declined to comment on Klimek’s charges, saying it was an internal police issue.
Members described a Kafkaesque scene of Israeli police arresting them at gunpoint during a midnight “commando raid” on their apartments in Bethany two weeks ago. They said they were roused from bed and their homes were ransacked by dozens of police agents before they were deported to America with little more than the clothes on their backs.
“About 10 officers came at 12:30 at night and one put a gun to my head,” said Brother David, who has lived in Jerusalem for nearly 20 years. “Everything was turned upside down, they ripped open everything — you wouldn’t believe it. I can’t believe they can just go in and handcuff somebody without telling them their rights.”
Some Israeli authorities, according to media reports, said the members were arrested because police had information that the group was planning to cause a public disturbance.
Technically, Israel said the members were deported because their visas had expired. But on Monday none of the group believed that was the real reason. Brother David noted his visa expired in 1980. Peterson said she had been living in Israel without an active visa for seven years. The others were in Israel for less than two years.
Brother David said recent media attention given to the group made it an easy target for police.
“The whole point is, we were proclaiming the second coming of the Messiah, Yeshua, and the fact that the millennium, the Year 2000, was getting closer was making the Israelis nervous,” he said.
Experts acknowledge that Israel is becoming increasingly tense over potential violence from Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious extremists at the city’s many holy sites with millions of Christian pilgrims planning to visit the country next year.
The Jewish Week reported last week on the contents of an FBI report warning of a potentially explosive atmosphere in Jerusalem.
During the interview, House of Prayer group members insisted several times they were not violent. They spoke of their love of Jews and Israel, the “spirit of the antichrist” that infuses America and their disappointment in Israeli Interior Minister Natan Sharansky, who rejected their last-minute appeal to stay their deportation.
“He is a man we prayed for for years,” Brother David said of Sharansky, the former Soviet refusenik. “You would think that man of all people would have understanding of what we were going through.”
They expressed resentment that despite their devotion to Israel , they cannot attain citizenship, while even non-believing Jews are readily accepted under Israel’s Law of Return.
“You can be a full-blooded Jewish person and you can be an atheist [or] worship the devil … and you can make aliyah,” Green said. “But if you believe that Jesus is the messiah you can’t. That’s the spirit of antichrist.”
Members insisted they do not believe in setting specific dates for their belief in the return of Jesus. “We are not date setters,” said Peterson, a petite, tanned northern California native with long graying hair. But they do believe “the world is in the season” of the End of Days, meaning it could happen now or in seven years.
Members of the group were not shy about disagreeing or contradicting each other, or even Brother David.
They gave varied responses to the question of violence. Karen, a Florida native in her 30s, said she was sent to Israel last year “to be a peacemaker. We have nothing to do with the violence. God is going to do that. We are just sounding the alarm to warn the world.”
Husband Raymond Green, in his mid 20s, spoke more ominously that something would happen to the group in America because they are speaking out.
“Expect us to be silenced, he said. “Expect the forces of darkness to come against us.”
While saying that they bore no ill will toward Israel despite their deportation, the group continually criticized America for “forcing” Israel into a peace agreement that involves surrendering land — which they say is against the Bible.
“Israel needs to start thinking for herself and stop letting America think for her,” Green declared. Their talk of the spirit of the antichrist made allusions to the United States.
And members agreed that the FBI was behind their deportation.
“I think the pressure is coming to Israel from the FBI, “ said Peterson.
“If it was left to the Israelis, we’d probably still be there,” added Brother David.
Richard Landes, director of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University, said there appears to be a misunderstanding of how to deal with evangelical Christians in Israel.
“The Israelis have been saying they are acting on the FBI’s advice,” he said. “I know that the FBI is [angry] — they don’t feel they’ve been telling Israelis to do this,” referring to the deportation.
An Israeli Embassy official said “there is very good professional cooperation between Israeli police and their American counterparts.”
Embassy spokesman Mark Regev said that while he could not discuss the specifics of the House of Prayer case, Israel was taking the necessary steps to insure that millions of Christian pilgrims can visit safely.
“There is concern. The police do have information about certain extreme groups which see the millennium as a time of apocalypse and are motivated to violent actions,” he said.
House of Prayer members were not sure what they would do next. Peterson and her family planned to fly to California this week. Brother David planned to stay in New York for the time being to get his story out.
“I poured out 20 years in Israel. I probably brought hundreds of thousands of dollars in the land just to bless Israel,” he said. “I have no checking account, no savings account. Everything went into blessing Israel.”