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Between God and a hard place

Author takes look at the Temple Mount, epicenter of the end of the world

The Temple Mount is considered one of the world's most sacred and contested real estate on earth
The Temple Mount is considered one of the world's most sacred and contested pieces of real estate  

In this story:

Making things happen

History never-ending

RELATED STORIES, SITES Downward pointing arrow

(CNN) -- The Temple Mount in Jerusalem stands at the convergence of three major religions. For Jews, it is the spot where the grand Temples of biblical and Roman times stood. For Muslims, it is the site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, home of the Dome of the Rock, which marks the place from which Muhammad ascended to heaven. And for Christians, it marks the place where the Third Temple should be built, a vital condition for the Second Coming.

Yet the Temple Mount has bred tension, not peace. Witness the visit to the site by Israeli opposition party leader Ariel Sharon at the end of September; since then, more than 200 people have been killed in violence, and the Middle East peace process appears to be in as much disarray as the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

Mideast struggle for peace
Excerpt: 'The End of Days'

Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg has spent years studying the fundamentalist groups who wish to make the mount their own, and observes that ignorance plays as much of a role as knowledge. The mount's "explosive potential is not always understood," he says. "People do things without realizing the significance of their actions to others. The whole series of events, from Camp David to Sharon's visit to the current unrest, could be case studies."

In his new book, "The End of Days" (The Free Press) Gorenberg takes a closer look at those fundamentalist groups and their desire to witness the end of the world. "What's fascinating to me is that everybody agrees what the stage is," he says in a phone interview from his home in Jerusalem. "Yet they look at the same events and interpret them differently."

Making things happen

For many fundamentalist groups, it's not enough to wait for the end. They've decided to help things along.

In "The End of Days," author Gershom Gorenberg examines why the Temple Mount continues to be a powerful catalyst for conflict  

With spiritual texts as guidebooks, Christian groups are helping to breed the red heifers necessary for Temple rites; Jewish ultra-Orthodox believers are attempting to create a new group of temple priests, or kohanim; and Muslim fundamentalists stand ready to grab arms for the final showdown.

In such an uneasy atmosphere, everything becomes a sign, says Gorenberg. For example, when a cow was born in 1996 that fit the description of the red heifer that would signal the world's demise, people flocked to see it.

"I suspect that other cows have been born that were red or nearly red, but nobody paid attention," says Gorenberg. "But when you're looking for it ..."

The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 got the end-times ball rolling, he observed.

"That got people started thinking that prophecy was coming true. It was a terrible theological tease," he says. For Christians, he adds, another ingredient in the end-of-days brew was the invention of the atomic bomb: For the first time, man had created a means for ending the world on his own.

History never-ending

But what happens when history goes on?

For some, it's too much to handle, says Gorenberg. They go back to their normal lives. At best, they're disappointed, such as the members of the mid-19th century doomsday group led by William Miller. When the Almighty didn't wipe out the earth, some of that sect regrouped and became the Seventh-Day Adventists.

Others would prefer helping hustle the world to its just desserts. Some turn to violence, others turn to prayer; all would rather take their chances in the next life than this one.


The end times have made some strange bedfellows. Two American writers, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, have turned the New Testament's Book of Revelation into "Left Behind," a bestselling series. Despite attracting little attention from the mainstream publishing industry, it's sold more copies this year than anything except titles in the Harry Potter series. And fundamentalist Christians have established close ties with fundamentalist Jews, though each side thinks the other is wrong about what will happen after the Apocalypse.

Millennial belief will continue to have a hold on many followers in the coming years, Gorenberg suspects. Millennialists believe in absolutes, so anything short of that -- a compromise between Israelis and Palestinians, for example -- won't ease their desires. "When millennialists speak about peace, they're talking about the wolf lying down with the lamb," says Gorenberg. "They're talking about conflict disappearing, and so the people causing the conflict disappear as well."

How the end comes, incidentally, is not a great concern. One bestselling Christian author, says Gorenberg, said nuclear holocaust would be just fine.

Despite the hoopla, "history will go on," says Gorenberg. He's optimistic the Israelis and Palestinians will find common ground before trying to blow each other off it. "Despite the current troubles, I think the two sides will find agreement, and that will include a statement about the Temple Mount," he says.

But the radicals on each side won't be pleased, he says. For them, there must be a winner.

"So, though I'll greet an agreement with happiness," Gorenberg says, "I won't drop my guard."

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The Apocalypse?
Millennium and Apocalypse
Armageddon Books
The Free Press (Simon & Schuster)

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