Iran Fanning Islam's Messianic Hopes?

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said an Islamic messiah known as the Mahdi is behind a divine awakening sweeping across the Middle East.

Millions of Muslims believe the Mahdi will one day return to save humanity. But before he can appear, Israel and America must be destroyed.

"With the grace of god, and thanks to the resistance of nations, the new Middle East will be realized soon without the American and the Zionist regimes," Ahmadinejad recently said.

"The final move has begun," he continued, supporting his belief that the chaos in the region was organized by the Mahdi. "We are in the middle of a world revolution managed by this dear (the Mahdi)."

"A great awakening is unfolding," he said. "One can witness the hand of Imam in managing it."

An Islamic Savior

Ahmadinejad's messianic and end-time beliefs can be traced to a mosque in the small village of Jamkaran tucked in a corner of Iran.

Behind the mosque is a well that, according to Ahmadinejad and millions of Shiite Muslims, the Mahdi or 12th imam will one day emerge from.

Author Joel Rosenberg talks about the phenomenon in his book, "The Twelfth Imam."

"It was believed that this Islamic leader was going to come back one day at the end of time and bring justice to the earth," he explained.

Thousands of Muslims visit the sacred well each night. The opening of the well is covered by a green metal box to prevent people from jumping in.

Most visitors spend time praying and kissing the metal box. Others scribble prayer requests to the Mahdi on pieces of paper that are then dropped into the well.

Many believe the Mahdi is actually hiding at the bottom of the well reading their prayer requests.

"I was looking into the well with my flashlight hoping to see the Mahdi, but not to tonight," one boy said.

Anticipating the End Times

According to Shia scholars, the Mahdi -- a descendent of the prophet Mohammed -- vanished in the middle of the 9th century.

"Shia Muslims expect the 12th Imam to return at the end of history, at the end of days, when there's a time of great genocide, warfare, and chaos in the world," Rosenberg explained.

Sunnis, who make up the majority of Muslims in the world, have different views on the Mahdi.

For instance, they believe the Mahdi is yet to be born and will descend from Fatima, the daughter of the prophet Mohammed.

Shia Muslims believe the 12th Imam is alive and will reappear before the day of judgment.

Brother Waheed hosts a popular television show seen across the Middle East.

"All Muslims are required to believe in the end times. Despite these theological differences between Shia and Sunnis on the Islamic messiah, belief in the last days is mandatory," he said.

Committed to the Mahdi

Since becoming the president of Iran in August 2005, Ahmadinejad has emerged as the Mahdi's most influential follower.

In almost all his speeches, whether at home or traveling abroad, the Ahmadinejad begs Allah to hasten the return of the Mahdi.

"Oh, god, hasten the arrival of Imam Mahdi and grant him good health and victory and make us his followers," he once said before a speech.

Ahmadinejad is believed to be tied to a radical Islamic society in Iran that believes man can hasten the appearance of the Mahdi.

"[This is done] by annihilating two countries: Israel, which they call the 'Little Satan,' and the United States, which they call the 'Great Satan,'" Rosenberg said.

An End to Judeo-Christian Civilization

Sunnis and Shias believe the end days will be marked by apocalyptic times.

"Just before the Mahdi returns, there will be chaos throughout the world," Waheed added. "Wars, famines, and floods will ravage the earth. But when the Mahdi comes, he will bring peace and justice."

Muslims believe that when the Mahdi returns, he will be accompanied by Jesus Christ, also known in Islam as the prophet Isa.

"They believe that Jesus will physically return to this world." Waheed explained. "He will kill the pigs, break the crosses, kill the Jews, and defeat the anti-Christ."

Until that day comes, Ahmadinejad is telling the world to prepare.

"He believes the end of time is near, that the Islamic messiah is coming and the way to accelerate or hasten the 12th Imam's arrival and reign on earth is to destroy Judeo-Christian civilization as we know it," Rosenberg said.

"And that's what makes Ahmadinejad so dangerous because he and his regime are pursuing the very nuclear weapons that would enable them to bring about this wholesale destruction of Jewish and Christian society as we know it."

--Originally published March 11, 2011.

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