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Israel arrests Christian cult members from U.S.

Israeli police detained eight adults and six children belonging to a Denver-based apocalyptic Christian cult Sunday, accusing the group of planning violent acts in Jerusalem.

Dozens of uniformed and plainclothes police raided two spacious suburban homes about a mile apart on Jerusalem's steep, hilly outskirts, neighbors said. The members of the group, Concerned Christians, did not resist.

Israeli authorities fear that the months leading to the millennium will bring an influx of religious extremists to Israel, some of them dangerous.

Seventy-eight members of the cult disappeared from Denver in October and were thought to be living in the Jerusalem area. The detained cultists had been under surveillance for a month.

Police said the group was planning to provoke a shootout by opening fire on Israeli police, believing that such an attack would hasten the second coming of Christ.

"They planned to carry out violent and extreme acts in the streets of Jerusalem at the end of 1999 to start the process of bringing Jesus back to life," said Brig. Gen. Elihu Ben-Onn, the national police spokesman.

A senior police official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the cult members believed that being killed by police would "lead them to heaven."

Many of the planned violent acts were to have been carried out in Jerusalem's walled Old City, the official said. One possible locale was the hilltop known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, a flashpoint for Jewish-Arab tensions, the official said.

Cult leader Monte Kim Miller, 44, was not among those detained; police said he was not in Israel. The former Denver resident has described himself as a figure in prophecies in the Book of Revelation, and says he is destined to die in the streets of Jerusalem in the final days of December 1999.

Neighbors at both locations who were shown photographs of the missing cultists identified several of them. However, Israeli police would not release the names of any of the suspects arrested, and Israeli law prohibits publication of suspects' names until they appear in court.

Police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby said the children and their mothers were not in jail but at an "institutional office." Ben-Ruby wouldn't say where the rest of the adults were, but said the men were in custody. The group would not necessarily appear in court.

Authorities said they intended to deport the group members.

Underscoring the matter's sensitivity, the raids were personally overseen by Jerusalem police commander Yair Yitzhaki. The Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service, also was involved.

A U.S. Embassy official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that a consular official would visit the detained cultists as soon as possible.

Police said the cultists were financed by funds raised outside Israel, but not necessarily in the United States.

The two homes, in the well-off western Jerusalem suburbs of Mevasseret Zion and Moza, were similar: both large, built of yellow Jerusalem stone, surrounded by flowering plants. The one in Moza was almost a picture of American-style suburban comfort, with a wooden trellis and a porch swing on the front patio.

"They were so nice, so quiet, so polite," said Rami Chanono, 30, whose parents live next door to the Mevasseret Zion home.

But he said he thought it was strange that the children did not appear to attend school, and the adults, too, mainly stayed home and worked in the garden. Food was delivered to them, he said.

The vanished members of the Concerned Christians represent a wide cross-section: white and black, married and single, white-collar professionals and unemployed laborers. They range in age from infancy to 68.

Guesses as to the whereabouts of Miller and other followers vary: Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, Toronto, Libya. The size of the cult is not known, but it is not thought to be much larger than the 78 people who have already disappeared.

Members of cultists' families have testified as to their apocalyptic beliefs.

"My mother told me in August '96 that we have only 40 months left on Earth," said an affidavit filed in a Boulder, Colo., district court in 1997 by 16-year-old Nicolette Weaver, whose mother was a cult member. "My mother told me that if Kim Miller told her to kill me, she would."

The girl's father was awarded sole custody of her.

Despite worries over potential violence associated with the millennium, Israeli officials are emphasizing that they want to welcome visitors and guard religious freedom.

But a statement by Yitzhaki, the police chief, said authorities would "act firmly against the attempts of extreme groups ... in the year 1999."