Mexican religious leader jailed for sexual abuse; the herd remains faithful

GUADALAJARA, Mexico (AP) — Their spiritual leader is behind bars in California after pleading guilty to sexually abusing minors. Yet legions of followers of Naasón Joaquín García in his hometown in Mexico remain fervently loyal to him, viewing his imprisonment as a challenge that will strengthen their church, La Luz del Mundo (The Light of the World), rather than the weaken.

His continued hold on his flock was evident recently at the main temple of the Christian Church of Guadalajara, as thousands of people gathered to pray for their absent leader during their Holy Communion, the holiest feast in La Luz del Mundo. . Surprised, Joaquín García spoke to the congregation by telephone from his prison in Los Angeles, where he is serving a 16-year sentence.

“I don’t see the bars that separate me from you,” he told his followers. “I see your beautiful faces…because you are children of God.

Even outside the temple, the sound of his voice stirred emotions among dozens of devotees guarding the entrances to the shrine. Almost everyone closed their eyes. Many raised their fists. Some knelt down and wept.

Towards the end of the call, Joaquín García asked his disciples to raise their hands and their voices to God and to repeat after him: “I promise you, Lord, that whatever the suffering, I will never abandon you. “.

It seems clear that many members of the church, founded in Mexico in 1926 and now active in many countries, are not ready to give up Joaquín García as their “apostle” – the term used for the leader of the church. Many believe he was sent by God to preach to them and are convinced he is innocent, despite his guilty plea.

“The apostle always shows his determination to move forward,” said Phares Ruiz, who traveled from El Salvador to attend the Holy Communion. “He is firm in his beliefs, and the church is also firm in its purpose to move forward.”

Ruiz told The Associated Press his family has belonged to La Luz del Mundo for three generations.

Joaquín García, 53, was arrested in 2019 in California. He initially faced more than 20 charges, but most were dismissed after a plea deal with prosecutors. The church argued that prosecutors withheld or doctored evidence, and said Joaquín García pleaded guilty because he did not believe he would receive a fair trial.

“The apostle of Jesus Christ had no choice but to accept with great pain that the agreement presented is the best way forward to protect the church and his family,” the church said. .

The church’s home base is the Guadalajara neighborhood of Hermosa Provincia, Spanish for “beautiful province”. Jericho, Bethlehem, and Nazareth are among the names of the roads converging on the White Temple that locals call “the Cake”, for its white tiers that decrease in size as they rise.

Members of the neighborhood congregation call each other “brother” and “sister” and are proud to help each other. The church’s media relations office says there is no crime in the area.

The neighborhood has cafeterias, clinics, a recreation center and a store that sells Bibles and religious-themed games for children. On the walls hang photographs of Joaquín García, smiling and wearing a tuxedo. Straddling the main street is a sculpture spelling out “innocent” in Spanish.

Sara Pozos, 49, is one of many residents in the neighborhood who believe their leader’s imprisonment has strengthened the church.

“I think it’s changed for the better in that we now feel more united and we feel more empowered,” she said.

“It was a very difficult question, of course, for him and for us,” she added. “We all suffer something in life, but we learn to know those moments when you see that God is doing something to help you, to move on, to not let you down.”

Another neighborhood resident, Sailem Castillo, also said she was optimistic despite Joaquín García’s imprisonment.

“For us, everything is going very well, everything continues to work,” she said. “Ministers, pastors and deacons have the same duties. They bless the bread, the wine and do other things as if he were here, although he was not physically.

The imprisoned leader is the grandson of the founder of La Luz del Mundo: Eusebio Joaquín González, a member of the army who started preaching in 1926. He is known to church members as Aarón – a result, he said, of God asking him to change his name.

Aaron’s wife was the first member of the church. Today, it claims more than 5 million members in about fifty countries.

La Luz del Mundo is sometimes described as evangelical, but its members do not embrace this term. The doctrine of the church is learned from the cradle. Parents give their children biblical names and take them to the temple at 40 days to promise that they will guide them on their way.

Most of the teachings translate into something everyday. During services, women are seated on the right and men on the left. In some cities, people donate more than 10% of their monthly income to the church. Bible verses are quoted to explain the behavior.

Castillo, a 25-year-old recently married woman, told AP the church advises members how to “lead a decent life,” in which women cannot drink alcohol or go out frequently. Like other women in Hermosa Provincia, she wears dresses and skirts that are not tight, avoids makeup and earrings, and wears her hair long.

Religion is “very demanding,” said Arlene M. Sánchez-Walsh, professor of religious studies at Azusa Pacific University, a Christian institution near Los Angeles.

“It’s not enough to say ‘I converted’ or ‘I baptized’,” she said. “You have to follow certain steps to prove your loyalty.”

For some young people, these steps include memorizing songs honoring the apostle, reading the Bible before bed, and not marrying someone outside the church.

“All of this shows that although you are part of this world, you have accepted a very particular way of life because you are a Christian,” Sánchez-Walsh said.

Those born into the community are baptized at 14 because, according to the church, this allows them to decide whether to reaffirm or abandon the faith. Nevertheless, there are former members who say their ceremony was not optional.

Prior to baptism, in a ritual known as “awakenings,” children undergo days of prayer and fasting inside a temple. Revival consists of repeating “Glory to Christ” over and over until the young people are heard speaking in tongues to testify that the Holy Spirit has entered into them.

For Raquel Haifa, 43, performing the revivals was a traumatic experience that she considers abusive, as minors cannot refuse to participate.

“I cried, because I said, ‘God, deliver me from this, make this time go fast,'” Haifa said from Texas.

Currently, journalists are not permitted to attend services or take photos inside church temples. Since Joaquín García’s arrest, La Luz del Mundo’s media relations team says they cannot make official statements on his case as litigation is ongoing.

On September 8, a lawsuit was filed in California against Joaquín García and four church members allegedly complicit in the sexual abuse. The suit was brought by five women who – under the pseudonym of Jane Doe – were identified as victims in the original criminal charges against him.

He accuses Joaquín García of conditioning the victims, under the guise of religion, to serve him above all else, which ultimately culminated in years of sexual abuse.

The lawsuit includes detailed accounts of the five plaintiffs alleging that they were pressured by Joaquín García and his associates to perform for pornographic photo shoots and were forced to engage in sexual acts with him.

“The church has weaponized the faith of its most vulnerable members,” said Jonati Joey Yedidsion, one of the trial attorneys. “Instead of protecting these innocent women, Naasón and the church encouraged and then brutally attacked their blind trust and allegiance to ‘the Apostle’.”

It has been difficult for some former members who have drifted away from the church.

Speaking on a podcast called ‘I left a cult’, Lo-ami Salazar said Hermosa Provincia was his ‘happy place’.

“Knowing that this abuse happened there, in my happy place, in my safe place, is horrible,” she said.

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