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Apocalyptic Vision: Guest Post by Charles Cameron

I am pleased to have as a guest-blogger, Charles Cameron, who is the former Senior Analyst with The Arlington Institute and Principal Researcher with the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University. He specializes in forensic theology, with a deep interest in millennial, eschatological and apocalyptic religious sects of all stripes.


by Charles Cameron


What’s this about the Mahdi and a call for Islamic mobilization?

Al-Arabiya carried what seems to me to be a significant article about the Mahdi, Islam’s end-times savior on August 17th. The report stated that the personal representative of the Supreme Leader was calling on Iran’s neighboring states “to mobilize their forces in preparation for the coming of the savior of Islam”.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s spokesman, Ali Saeedi, said countries like Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan and Afghanistan should gather together all their forces in order to make drastic changes to prepare for the coming of al-Mahdi al-Montazar, Arabic for “the awaited guided one.”

“We still have a long way to go in order to achieve this. We have to train honest forces that can stop the obstacles that may hinder the coming of the Mahdi like the United States and Israel,” Saeedi said in statement posted by the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA).

Muslims must unite for Islam’s Savior: Iran, Al-Arabiya, Monday, 17 August 2009

That’s a call to arms, put out by a Shi’ite nation state, and addressed to Sunni and Shi’ite alike — and it drew almost no attention in the western press.We can safely disregard it, right? After all, Mahdism is a Shi’ite phenomenon, and whereas Iran has a conservative rearguard that expects the Mahdi’s soon-coming along with President Ahmadinejad, the Sunni world has no time for that kind of thing.

Except that bin Laden seems to share the apocalyptic expectation, if not the exclusively Shi’ite details — the view that the Mahdi has already been born once, into a Shi’ite family, and is presently in occultation prior to his soon return.

So I am not arguing that we should worry too much about Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan and Afghanistan all deciding to join forces with the Iranian Republican Guard any time soon. But I am arguing that we should be alert to Mahdism — and more generally, Messianism — as a contemporary driver.


It so happens that Steve Coll was on the radio again this week, in a rebroadcast of a talk he gave in April, and here’s some of what he had to say on the subject of Osama bin Laden:

It’s a mistake to see him entirely as a political, or even to some extent mostly, as a political leader. He has a purchase on these grievances and he understands them and I’m sure he feels them — but he’s also a millenarian: he believes that he’s been called by God to wage a war that will only conclude at the end of time. He hasn’t built a political movement, he doesn’t offer any social services, he doesn’t build a hospital — he thinks he’s fighting until the end of time, that he’s carrying out a narrative that’s pre-ordained, and that his role is to awaken God’s followers to their righteous role so that they can pass to the next phase. And so there is this interaction of millenarian, apocalyptic thinking on the one hand — which justifies all violence — and this sort of terrestrial political critique on the other. And what happens when you read his statements in the west is that, well, everyone can understand the political critique, so that gets all the attention — and people’s eyes glaze over at the rest because it’s a little bit hard to digest. But when you read it in full it’s a very, very important aspect of why he’s doing what he’s doing and who he thinks he is.

Steve Coll, talking about his book The Bin Ladens for the World Affairs Council.

Should that surprise us?

Not if we noted Bin Laden’s quotation of the “Gharqad tree hadith” — which specifies the nature of the end times conflict:

Doomsday shall not come until Muslims fight Jews. A Jew would be hiding behind a tree or a stone. The tree or the stone would say, O Muslim, O subject of God, there is a Jew behind me come and kill him. The only exception is [Gharqad] tree is a tree that belongs to Jews.

and his comment:

Whoever claims that there is lasting peace with the Jews is a disbeliever of what the prophet, may the peace and blessings of God upon him, said. Our conflict with the enemies of Islam will continue until Doomsday.

No definite timeline is given, and bin Laden also remarks that his father waited forty years for the Mahdi — and indeed set aside $12 million to support him on his arrival — but the appeal is to end-times expectation,

FWIW, this isn’t the only time bin Laden has quoted the Gharqad tree hadith, and it is also quoted in the Charter of the Hamas — for more on the topic, see Anne Marie Oliver and Paul Steinberg, The Road to Martyrs’ Square, pp 19-21, and watch this chilling MEMRI video from of Sheikh Muhammad Al-Arifi, speaking on Al Aqsa TV, September 2008.


Why is eschatological or apocalyptic rhetoric significant?

It is an accelerant. Simply put, it is a force-multiplier, acting on morale via the sphere of religion, by providing divine sanction for violence — zeal with a deadline.
Apocalyptic expectation is in part the expectation that “all the injustices of the old world will be put right” very soon, as Damian Thompson noted, and it creates “an especially potent form of charismatic authority, one that rubs off on ordinary believers as well as the prophet.” This extraordinary empowerment of the individual believer comes about because “foreknowledge about one of the most important subjects imaginable — the fate of the planet — creates a special, even intimate, bond between those who share it”:

In every case, the most striking feature of the millennial theodicy is the contrast between present misery and the glory to come: the latter justifies and makes tolerable the formed.

It may also justify and make tolerable the use of violence in the lead-up to apocalypse, as it clearly does in both the Shi’ite call to arms and the Sunni hadith quoted above. And furthermore, in all these cases the misery is the fruit of sin, whereas the glory is the glory of God.

The nature of millennial expectation is conditioned by culture, yet cross-cultural in its basic patterns, and transcendent in its authority. Thompson goes on to note that “the anticipation of violence does not constitute a cost of millenarianism, since the blood being shed will be that of the unsaved” — and Kerry Noble put the point quite succinctly in his retrospective account of a Christian millenarian movement he later left:

I was not looking forward to the coming war, but I was looking forward to the Kingdom of God that was to follow. That’s how many of us rationalized being soldiers of God. We wanted peace, but if purging had to precede peace, then let the purging begin.

Ahmadinejad or bin Laden might say much the same.


Who is awake to this pervasive strand of eschatological thinking, among the Shi’a, among the Sunni, and among ourselves?

I cannot speak for the intelligence community, except to say that a rational, secular analyst monitoring these matters is liable to note the “blips” of open source intel but miss the fire that underlies them. Or again, as Steve Coll put it,

people’s eyes glaze over at the rest because it’s a little bit hard to digest.

That’s not a feature — that’s a bug.

Some on the Christian right get it, because they live in the apocalyptic realm themselves. The two Joels, Rosenberg (author of Epicenter) and Richardson (author of The Islamic Antichrist), were among the few to blog Ali Saeedi’s comments, with Joel Rosenberg picking up on a piece on WND that quotes Joel Richardson, whose own blog,  Joel’s Trumpet, monitors Islamic apocalyptic closely from a Christian apocalyptic perspective.

But short of actual apocalyptic belief of one’s own — which will generally cause one to disparage if not dismiss the equivalent apocalypses of others — it takes an ear open to the whisperings of myth and dream, a mind open to the logic of music and poetry to understand such thinking, such imaginings.

Michael Vlahos of Johns Hopkins, the author of  Fighting Identity: Sacred War and World Change, certainly gets it, noting that 9/11 was the work of Holy Warriors “passionately steeped in ancient Muslim apocalyptic” — and that we responded “with out own brand of American apocalyptic”. Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, senior members of Clinton’s National Security Council get it — noting in their book, The Age of Sacred Terror, that “so much of what was heard from al-Qaeda after the attacks sounded to Americans like gibberish that many chords of the apocalypse were missed.”

Ali Allawi knows it, and dedicated his 2007 talk at the Jamestown Foundation to noting the “under the radar” existence and significance of Mahdist millennialism in Iraq.

But who else?


When the overtly millennial year two thousand CE was approaching, Boston University hosted the Center or Millennial Studies, brainchild of Richard Landes of BU and Stephen O’Leary of USC, and for almost a decade scholars gathered for conferences to share the commonalities and differences between millennial movements from before the birth of Christ to the coming century and beyond.

When the roll-over to 2000 passed without major apocalyptic incident, the Center closed — but the millennial season was not over, it has only just begun.

Just this month I saw a “birther” — someone who believes President Obama was born in Kenya, and is thus not eligible to be president of the United States — tying that position in with Joel Richardson’s “middle eastern” antichrist: apocalyptic fervor once again enhancing a political stance. There will be more…

We will keep seeing millennial outpourings of zeal — and perhaps, though not always, violence — at least until 2012, when Mayan calendar enthusiasts (and apparently some readers of the jihadist online magazine, Jihad Recollections, issue 3) expect apocalyptic changes. And if the world staggers through to 2013 then at least to 2033, when many Christians will no doubt wish to celebrate the 2000th anniversary of the crucifixion and resurrection of their Savior. And should that not suffice for an ending of an age, at least till the turn of the next Islamic century in 1500 AH or 2076 CE and arrival of that century’s mujaddid or “reformer”. Or indeed the climactic battle between Islam (represented by the Mahdi) and Buddhism, predicted, curiously enough, in one of the Dalai Lama’s preferred texts — the Kalachakra or Wheel of Time Tantra — to take place in 2424 CE..


Perhaps we should take a hint from the Kalachakra, which in addition to positing an end times war, suggests that this is no more than a “a metaphor for the inner battle of deep blissful awareness … against unawareness and destructive behavior”. Gandhi said much the same about the battle of Kurukshetra in the Bhagavad Gita.

One might wish that all apocalyptic believers felt that way: they don’t.

20 Responses to “Apocalyptic Vision: Guest Post by Charles Cameron”

  1. david ronfeldt Says:

    an important, very interesting set of points.  but oddly, it’s a topic that keeps having difficulty gaining traction among analysts and strategists.  i once tried repeatedly in small ways years ago to urge that al qaeda et al. be analyzed as expressions of millenarianism — as millenarians who have a strategic sense, and not just as political and military strategists who have a a millenarian bent.  but my little efforts proved to no avail and usually led to dismissiveness (accompanied sometimes with distinctions about sunnis vs. shias, and jihadis vs. apocalyptic millenarians, that were said to counsel against thinking that islam can exhibit the millenialism that has often cropped up in jewish and christian histories). 
    for what it’s worth, i have an unfinished series of ruminations at my own blog (all done last march) about millenarian terrorism.  as i recall, cameron stopped by and left an encouraging comment or two.  i’m interested to learn here about coll’s take, and look forward to what i can learn and add from it.
    some of my key points:  for starters, read norman cohn’s “pursuit of the millenium” and michael barkun’s “disaster and the millenium” to become familiar with key themes and dynamics.  learn that the millenarian believes he/she faces not just relative deprivation (a favorite theme among conflict analysts) but absolute disaster (a more difficult theme for analysts to cope with).  in addition, realize that the millenarian mindset is knotted up with urgent notions not only about social time (the “end times”) but also about the nature of social space (barriers everywhere) and social action (violent deeds to achieve divine breakthroughs). 
    i have yet to finish my series with a part 4, which is supposed to be about policy and strategy implications.  not sure when i’ll get to it.  but one point, perhaps too obvious, is to figure out how to drive wedges between the hard-core millenarians, who are not going to change their minds or relent, and the tag-along tribalists who amount to “accidental” millenarians.  this might help us deal with dynamics within and among al qaeda, the taliban and its various elements, not to mention iranian actors.  but as charles and others point out, dynamics closer to home may be hotting up in distracting ways too.
    anyway, many thanks, mark, for having a post on this rare topic.  and thanks to you, charles, for offering needed perspective and guidance.  onward.

  2. zen Says:

    Hi David,
    " i once tried repeatedly in small ways years ago to urge that al qaeda et al. be analyzed as expressions of millenarianism — as millenarians who have a strategic sense, and not just as political and military strategists who have a a millenarian bent.  but my little efforts proved to no avail and usually led to dismissiveness "
    Sounds like the concept was so far outside their frame of reference that they refused to process it. Not sure that’s a good quality to have in our USG analysts. We want universal skeptics but not closed-minded ones.
    could you resend the link ? – zenpundit@hotmail.com

  3. Charles Cameron Says:

    Let me answer that, Zen.  . I thought it was gracious of David Ronfeldt not to point out that I had failed to mention him in my section on "those who get it" — because he’s one of those who does get it, and I knew it from that series of blog posts he mentioned — which can be found here and here and here, with an introduction here. .
    David is quite right to point to Norman Cohn and Michael Barkun as key scholars in this area.  .I’d also recommend Robert Jay Lifton’s Superpower Syndrome: America’s Apocalyptic Confrontation with the World, Jeffrey Kaplan’s Millennial Violence: Past, Present and Future, Robbins & Palmer’s Millennium, Messiahs and Mayhem, and Catherine Wessinger’s Millennialism, Persecution, and Violence and How the Millennium Comes Violently — the latter downloadable here.  . There’s really quite a list.

  4. Charles Cameron Says:

    < zen, if you could add some para breaks to that comment of mine, i’d appreciate it.  i tried to do it with periods, but it didn’t work this time — and then delete this comment! thanks >

  5. Kim McDodge Says:

    Too bad all the people edging on apocalypse from whatever race, creed, color, or gender cannot understand our own fanaticism that the change has already come with our increasing dependency on technology and that the split we are in is of that everyday world severed from our Sunday religious selves, which has already been superseded and sublated by the push toward globularization.  There is a huge wishful reactionary impulse: few of us really want to live in harsh mental modernity and want to be ensconced in archaic, magical or mythical nature and will pull everyone back there if possible rather than stop to listen, much less mature to what it wants of us…   For a specifically psychological reading of the split, starting with stories from Moses and the Golden Calf and ending in Plato’s Cave, please, please try the continuity of understanding thru Jean Gebser’s mutations of humanity thru to  Wolfgang Giegerich who brings to this discussion a l o n g trajectory and the rigorous discipline of thought staying with images lodged within those stories.  Without this breadth and depth it is hard to see thru the conflicts.  More forensics.  We need all the reflective surfaces we can find so we can open doors thru the confusion and pollution.   http://www.amazon.com/Technology-Soul-Collected-English-Papers/dp/1882670434/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1251494756&sr=1-6

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  7. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi, Kim:

    I have not read Giegerich, though David Miller has spoken of him — would you care to illuminate his views on apocalyptic, by email perhaps?  I am reachable at hipbone [a] earthlink.net — thanks!

  8. John R. Hall Says:

    Charles’s deeply theological reading of al Qaida and apocalypticism is an excellent point of departure, because it points to how specific ideas become woven into militant apocalyptic quasi-miloitary action. Military and strategic analysts may be interested in greater detail on how apocalypticism operates, as Charles puts it so well, as a "force multiplier." To address this question, in chapter 6 of my just-published book, Apocalypse: From Antiquity to the Empire of Modernity [Polity 2009], I identify three analytically distinct features of the “apocalyptic warring sect” – [1] an ideology that legitimates martyrdom, and more generally, a sacred cause, therefore to be fought to the death; [2] a “charismatic community” of combatants who develop distinctive strategies and tactics; and [2] an “oppositional milieu” of supporters who aid and abet the warring sect. There are serious geopolitical implications for how the coalition of opponents to al Qaida and related movements should proceed, both because an apocalyptic “war” probably is never really “won,” and because “war” itself is probably the wrong strategic rhetoric to use.   In short, apocalypticism is not just an ideology; it has organizational, strategic, and tactical implications – for both sides. John R. Hall

  9. david ronfeldt Says:

    charles — a delight to hear from you, see those nods to my own posts (many thanks), and learn about those additional writings.
    coincidentally, a few days ago i added so many brief updates and related links to two prior posts at my own blog that a google “robot” emailed me to allege that i was running a ”spam blog” and placed it under review, making me take extra steps to post new editting in order to prove that i am not a machine, and threatening to delete my blog unless is passes review by a human at google.  i’m amused to suppose that this may be another sign of the “end times.”  it’s making me feel more millenarian than usual.
    – – –
    p.s.:  come to think about it, perhaps i should not depart on such a joking note, for the ease of joking about mad millenarians may be partly why the subject is normally not taken seriously by analysts and strategists.  but it is a serious matter, as your post documents (and as i just now see, john hall helps confirm).  so i’ll try to end by offering another thought:  
    this blog, like others i frequent, is interested in implications of the information age for the future of conflict.  an interesting attribute of millenarian religious groups is that they are often on the cutting edge in adopting new info tech, partly because it enables them to project their identity beyond previous capacities.  as such these groups reflect the kind of world view described by Marshall McCluhan and Quentin Fiore (1967?):
    "Electric circuitry has overthrown the regime of ‘time’ and ‘space’ and pours upon us instantly and continuously concerns of all other men.  It has reconstituted dialogue on a global scale.  Its message is Total Change, ending psychic, social, economic, and political parochialism. . . .  Ours is a brand-new world of allatonceness.  ‘Time’ has ceased, ‘space’ has vanished.  We now live in a global village. . . a simultaneous happening.  We are back in acoustic space.  We have begun again to structure the primordial feeling, the tribal emotions from which a few centuries of literacy divorce us."  
    that is normally, famously quoted because of the “global village” notion.  i offer it up today for its millenarian content.  what’s important to millenarians is “time war” (rifkin, 1987), not a “clash of civilizations” (huntington, 1993).  

  10. Brian Hanley Says:

    Good article on the blog Charles. Although I have given other critique of Coll earlier,I think the article stands up anyway. I have some comments that basically are to the effect that I believe your thinking is too narrow, but it’s a good article.

    What you call millenarian-ism is what I would call fanaticism. The reason I would say that is that I think the millenarian aspect of bin Laden, (and other muslim fanatics) are secondary. The literature of islam provides plenty of directives about war, codification of religious bigotry and a system of oppression without the millenarian aspect. It contains an entire code of law that includes absolute dictatorship. It is a government more than it is a religion.

    I suspect, Charles, that we share an understanding of the mind of fanatics because both of us have seriously studied religion. We have, I suspect, both been in the company of fanatics, albeit of a different stripe.

    People tend to be incapable of comprehending an alternate world view except to the extent that it mirrors in some respect their own. I think that is why for you a millenarian announcement from Iran was something that caught your attention more than it would mine. I do think this announcement is significant, but only in the context of the larger fanatical ideology expounded in Koran, Ha’dith and Sharia that explicitly requires members of the cult to make war in order to oppress all others and put them in their proper place in the world.

  11. Brian Hanley Says:

    To clarify a bit, in Christianity, the notion of war is wrapped up in Armageddon, which can only happen at the end of the world and signals the second coming.  So people with a Christian cultural/ideological background can only understand war in those terms.

    However, Islam was founded in war by a general. Islam expanded by war for centuries. Islam is a war cult, pure and simple. Except in Sufism and some other very minor heretical sub-sects of Islam wherein jihad is re-interpreted to be exclusively an internal struggle, war is a central idea, a foundation, of Islam.

  12. zen Says:

    Hi Brian,
    I am not a scholar of comparative religions, unlike Charles or some of the other learned commenters however I think are probably some some substantial behavioral differences between a Salafist takfiri fanatic and a Mahdist of either Shiite or Sunni derivation. The former, as hostile as they might be to Westerners, would be a more predictable entity.  A "mahdi" figure, if I understand the theology correctly, with their transcendent status, is free not just to reinterpret the Sharia but to innovate core beliefs and take actions that a strict Salafist would shun. A much more dangerous and uncertain phenomenon

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  14. Charles Cameron Says:

    Michael Barkun, in a private communication quoted here with permission, writes:

    I too have wondered why so little has been made of the millenarian noises from Iran. The question (perhaps unanswerable) is, of course, what impact, if any, do these beliefs have on policy. One can, I suppose, make a stronger case for this with bin Laden. However, where a state is involved, there are organizational imperatives that tend to constrain millenarians (although as Hitler’s Germany demonstrates, even these constraints can be overridden).

    From my POV, Michael Barkun’s question as to the policy impact of millenarian beliefs and John Hall’s reference in his comment above to their "organizational, strategic, and tactical implications — for both sides" each point towards a needed conversation between those with knowledge of apocalyptic movements, their rhetoric and their histories, and those who deal in strategy and policy. I don’t want to get quite that specific quite so soon — partly because as Michael says, the question may be unanswerable, partly because many elements of the complex weave of policy are beyond my competence, so that my best contribution is to point to apocalyptic as a significant driver and then hold back.. What I do want to do is to suggest that apocalyptic / millenarian / eschatological strands are more pervasive in contemporary geopolitics than one might think.*In Jerusalem, as Gershom Gorenberg vividly illustrated in his book, The End of Days: fundamentalism and the struggle for the Temple Mount, some relatively small Jewish groups, supported by far larger Christian organizations, are preparing to build the Third Temple — a project which might involve "moving" the Islamic Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock shrines to Mecca or elsewhere. Not surprisingly, such a project is strongly opposed by most Muslims, who have their own claim to the Noble Sanctuary / Temple Mount as the place from which their Prophet ascended into heaven on the night of the Mi’raj — and in some tellings, where the Mahdi’s army will defeat his enemy the Sofiyan. Here’s an Iranian TV series site from 2007 discussing contemporary Christian messianic involvement:

    These extremist Christians believe that certain events must be carried out by the Protestants in the world so as to prepare the grounds for the Messiah’s reappearance. The followers of this school believe they have a religious duty to accelerate these events, for example planting the illegal Zionist state of Israel for the Jews of the world, in Palestine. They believe the Jews must destroy al-Aqsa Mosque and Qobbat as-Sakhra [the Dome of the Rock] in Bait al-Moqaddas [Jerusalem] and construct a large temple on these holy sites. They believe that Armageddon will begin when the Jews destroy these places.http://web.archive.org/web/20070716134349/http://english.irib.ir/IRAN/Leader/Illumination.htm

    The [Sunni] Saudi Sheikh Safar al-Hawali, similarly, regards Jewish dominance over the Noble Sanctuary, established at the end of the Six day War of 1967, as the "Abomination of Desolation" spoken of by Daniel, and foresees an end to that dominance 45 years later — in 2012 (!) —  as he reads Daniel’s prophecy.http://www.islamicawakening.com/viewarticle.php?articleID=908&pageID=33&amp;Gershon Salomon, leader of the Temple Mountain and Land of Israel Faithful, on the other hand, regards the presence of "a center of foreign pagan worship" (i.e., the Al Aqsa mosque and Dome) on the Mount as the Abomination… http://www.templemount.org/ftm/gershon.htmlAnd when Salomon was asked by NY Times reporter Jeffrey Goldberg in 1999 whether he would be "saddened if the destruction of the Dome of the Rock led to war", he responded with what I take to be astounding naivete, "I don’t think it will come to that. The Muslims know in their heart that this belongs to us."http://www.jeffreygoldberg.net/articles/nyt/israels_y2k_problem.phpSo, quite apart from the Iranian and Al-Qaeda issues discussed in my original post, there’s Jerusalem to consider — but that’s not all.  If I were writing from China, Falun Gong would be at the top of my list. *Happily perhaps, not everyone believes that the building of the Third Temple need disrupt the existing Islamic shrines. Joel Richardson, to whom I referred in my post, wrote a fascinating article about a "meeting of the minds" between Israeli rabbis of the recently re-established Sanhedrin, and Adnan Oktar, also known as Harun Yahya, an influential Turkish writer on Islamic topics, known best in the west for his attempts to refute Darwin: their purpose, to find common ground for the creation of a place of worship on the mount where Jews, Christians and Muslims alike might worship together in peace: http://www.wnd.com/index.php?fa=PAGE.view&pageId=106055As for Mahdist expectation — a sermon given by the Pakistani Shaykh-ul-Islam, Dr Muhammad Tahirul-Qadri, on August 8th of this year, declared that the Mahdi could not be born less than 744 years from now, in the year 2204 AH, or a thousand years later in 3204, or on some year in that thousand year series…http://www.minhaj.com.pk/en/2009/08/shaykh-ul-islam-dr-tahir-ul-qadri-announces-date-of-imam-mahdi-birthThat should give all of us some badly-needed breathing space…

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  16. Charles Cameron Says:

    My apologies for the scrunched-together look of my last comment — I haven’t figured out how to get paragraph breaks into my comments here as yet…

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  20. bill b Says:

    Greetings Charles, I remember you as a happy person when you visited hartford ct in late 73. Regret to say that men are following the bible script, and those that wrote it centuries ago………….are some families that have worked for centuries to rule the world. They are in a time crunch as 2011 was written in the bible as the time to depopulate the planet and install the godking. The godking will have the cheribin and seraphim to answer too………they are like a council of some number that will rule him.
    Certain ruling families in muslim world are actually related to the same large family group, and lots of things cannot be understood without knowing about the large family ruling the planet. The fog is dense, short story, your best bet for family safety is to hang out by the catholic church.

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