Fifty years ago, a young shearer travelled from Australia to Israel to orchestrate a plot he believed would prompt the return of Jesus Christ and usher in the end of the world.
Denis Michael Rohan started a fire which seriously damaged Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa mosque — one of Islam’s holiest sites — and shook a region already shrouded in tension.
Many Muslims believed the attack had been orchestrated by Israel, and protests erupted across the Middle East.
Carlo Aldrovandi, who researches religion, conflict and peacemaking in the region, says the political consequences still ring today.
“It was a tremendous historical watershed,” he tells RN’s Late Night Live.
Rohan, religion, and the radio
In the early 1960s Rohan was working as a shearer in Grenfell, in the central-west of New South Wales.
He had suffered a mental breakdown in the mid-60s, and did a stint at Bloomfield psychiatric hospital in Orange.
This was where he first discovered the Radio Church of God and an American religious broadcast called The World Tomorrow, which was syndicated on commercial radio throughout Australia.
Its presenter, Herbert W Armstrong, was known for prophesising the end of the world that would dawn after a global war centred around Jerusalem.
In 1969, at 28 years of age, Rohan travelled to Jerusalem.
Around four months later, on August 21, he carried a thermos flask of kerosene into the Al Aqsa mosque and started a blaze.
“It has been proved that Rohan acted alone motivated largely by his own apocalyptic belief,” Dr Aldrovandi says.
“[He believed] that destroying the existing Islamic shrines and replacing them with a temple would have brought about the advent of Jesus Christ.”
The fire destroyed an 800-year-old precious pulpit, known as the Minbar of Saladin, before it was put out.
“The damage caused by the arson was awful and it is evident when you see the photographs of the events,” Dr Aldrovandi says.
Rohan was arrested the day after the fire at a kibbutz north of Tel Aviv, where he’d been learning Hebrew since his arrival in Israel.
He told police his study of the Bible had convinced him that God wanted him to destroy the mosque.
At his trial he said he was trying to hasten the return of Jesus Christ, fulfilling the will of God communicated to him through the Bible.
“God told me that because I have obeyed him, I will be lifted up above the Earth and God shall bring all the maidens of Israel to me to bear offspring to God’s glory,” he told the court.
Three judges ultimately decided there was “no doubt” that Rohan was mentally ill.
He was subsequently hospitalised, and half a decade later his requests to be brought back to Australia were granted.
Eventually, he fell back into society and little is known about the remainder of his life.
A holy site
The Al Aqsa mosque is located on a hill in the Old City of Jerusalem that for thousands of years has been venerated as a holy site in Judaism, Christianity and Islam alike.
“The Temple Mount is the centre of of the world according to the Jewish and Islamic tradition,” Dr Aldrovandi says.
Muslims believe the mosque is built upon the site that the Prophet Mohammed ascended into Heaven.
For Jews it is called the Temple Mount, the site of the ancient Temple of Solomon, which was destroyed and rebuilt twice.
In biblical prophecy, a third restoration of Solomon’s temple — the Third Temple — would mean the return of Jesus. This is the basis of Christian Zionism.
A new era for Islamist politics
In the wake of the fire, Muslims in Jerusalem and across the world protested, often with violence.
Many Arab leaders were convinced the attack had been orchestrated by Israel.
“[Rohan’s] acts were, and are still seen today by many Muslims and Palestinians, as being orchestrated by the Israeli government,” Dr Aldrovandi says.
Muslim nations came together in Morocco and unanimously agreed Israel was responsible.
The move led to the formation of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, an attempt to represent this pan-Islamic sentiment and unity.
It was the first global Islamic organisation, and it still exists today.
The “collective voice of the Muslim world”, as it calls itself, has permanent delegations to the United Nations and the European Union.
Christian Zionism and Al Aqsa today
Dr Aldrovandi says a small minority of evangelical Christians and Jews still have apocalyptic visions associated with the destruction of the Al Aqsa Mosque and the building of the Third Temple.
“A minority of Temple Mount activists believe that human action should take place in order to force a full sovereignty over the Temple Mount,” Dr Aldrovandi says.
“A very minute minority … would like to build the Third Temple.
“It’s very difficult to understand whether or not this entails of destruction of the existing Islamic shrines.”
The evangelical leaders of the US Christian Zionist movement also want to reclaim the Temple Mount and have formed close alliances with Jewish religious groups.
Dr Aldrovandi says the movement is closely connected to the Trump administration.
“They were very prominent during the Bush administration and they went dormant during the Obama era,” he says.
“Now they’re back with Trump because Trump relies on the evangelical bloc in electoral terms.
“If you see [the US Israel-Palestinian] peace plan now, some may argue that has been influenced to some extent by the evangelical lobby.”
Dr Aldrovandi predicts the Temple Mount will remain a source of tension in the years to come.
“It’s a place that reflects on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and at the same time the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has an impact on Temple Mount,” he says.
“The Temple Mount will remain a catalyst.”
Topics: fundamentalism, islam, history, religion-and-beliefs, community-and-society, unrest-conflict-and-war, law-crime-and-justice, christianity, world-politics, australia, israel, nsw, grenfell-2810