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War in Iraq sparks revival of doomsday predictions

CAIRO, Egypt—The end is near.

From Egypt to the United States, books about Armageddon and the return of Jesus Christ are once again big sellers. The war in Iraq, a region central to both Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions, has sparked a revived interest in predictions of the end and led to an usual convergence of the apocalyptic visions that percolate on the edges of both American and Middle Eastern societies.

Web sites discuss end-of-time signs in the Bible and in the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Christian preachers and Muslim prayer leaders link today's headlines about war in the Garden of Eden and the birthplace of Abraham to centuries-old descriptions of humanity's final hours.

"The U.S.-led war on Iraq is an introduction to the battle of Armageddon," Yusef Faqr, an Egyptian attorney, recently told guests in his home. "It is very, very near."

In the United States, fundamentalists thumb through the Book of Revelation, which twice mentions the Euphrates River that runs through Iraq. According to Revelation, before Armageddon begins, "the four angels that are bound in the great river Euphrates" will be loosened and the river will be dried up so "that the way of the kings of the East might be prepared" to march to battle in Israel.

In Cairo, believers also are watching water levels in Iraq. According to Amin Mohamed Gamal El-Din, author of "Armageddon: Last Declaration of the Islamic Nation," the damming of the Euphrates was prophesied by Muhammad as a sign that Judgment Day, known in Islam as "The Hour," is nigh.

The river continues to flow, but Gamal El-Din says other prophetic signs have already come to pass, including an economic siege on Iraq (United Nations sanctions), a siege on Palestine (the Israeli occupation) and the appearance of people with black flags (the Taliban). "I expect a severe war to start in the near future," Gamal El-Din said. "Maybe in weeks, maybe in months, not in years."

Muslims and Christians share strikingly similar views of the final days. Both believe that a demonic leader—Dajal to Muslims and the Antichrist to Christians—will take over much of the world, and that Jesus Christ will return and defeat him prior to the hour of final judgment.

"The commonalities are overwhelming," said David Cook, a religion professor at Rice University in Houston who is finishing a book on classical Muslim apocalyptic literature.

Cook has traced these ideas to the founding of the religion in the 7th Century when some Muslims believed they had less than 100 years to unify the world under the belief in one God. Cook and others believe this helped inspire the victories of early Islamic warriors.

At a teashop near Al Azhar University in Cairo, the oldest Islamic institution of higher learning, students crowd around rickety tables to discuss Gamal El-Din's book. One student notes that Saddam Hussein's name itself is a sign of the last days, because its meaning is related to conflict.

The student believes this agrees with Muhammad's prophecies. The notion has a counterpart in apocalyptic Christianity, which finds a similarity between "Saddam" and "Abaddon," the evil leader in Revelation Chapter 9, Verse 11.

"When (Gamal El-Din's) first book came out it caused a big scandal because it was based a lot on the Torah and the Bible," says Osama Mohamed, a 29-year-old graduate student in criminal law. "The Christians and the Jews were treating Armageddon as their own secret. There were very few Muslims who knew about the details, but when the book came out, it became more known."

It's hard to know how many doomsday believers there are. In the United States, opinion polls and book sales indicate the ideas are widespread. Apocalyptic authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins have sold 55 million copies of their "Left Behind" series of fictional novels and children's books. "Armageddon," the 11th book in the adult series, debuted on various best-seller lists when it was released on April 8, the day before the fall of Baghdad.

In the Middle East, similar statistics don't exist, but Cairo booksellers say books dealing with events at the end of time are among their strongest sellers besides the Koran.

El-Din, a 49-year-old petroleum engineer, believes his "Armageddon" book, published in October 2001, has sold more than a million copies throughout the Middle East. The publisher, Abdel Hamid Shaalan, wouldn't discuss sales figures, but complained bitterly that pirated editions of "Armageddon" are available in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, the Emirates and Morocco.

The publisher of another popular work, "Armageddon: Truth or Fantasy," accused a reporter inquiring about sales of being a spy. "This book is very famous in America," Fathi Hashem, of the Island of Roses Bookstore said. "They want to know our point of view of who will win the Battle of Armageddon."

Belief that the Last Days are close not only spurred Islamic warriors in ancient times, but has also altered events in the modern era. In 1979, the last year of the 14th century of the Islamic calendar, apocalyptic conviction helped fuel the brief takeover of the Great Mosque in Mecca by armed militants and the revolution that toppled the shah of Iran, said Rice University's Cook, who is also an associate of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University.

Leading up to 2000, Islamic writers predicted Jews would destroy Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock during the millennial year. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's visit to the mosque in September 2000 fed that anxiety. "I think the second intifadah was also sparked by apocalyptic fears," Cook said.

Now, with interest in doomsday building, observers are again wary.

Gamal El Shaer, a member of the Egyptian Supreme Council for Islamic Matters and a professor of mass communications at Al Azhar, said he invited Gamal El-Din to appear on a two-hour program on state television so that the ideas in his book could be rationally discussed—and rebutted.

"This really worries me," he said. "I am afraid this book will lead to the implementation of these beliefs."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.