THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

 

The Light of the World 
Powerful Cult Brings Controversy, Fear in Mexico

  

By Phil Gunson
Chronicle Foreign Service

 

Moises Padilla is lucky to be alive. The armed men who kidnapped him one evening last week outside his house in Guadalajara spent much of the night torturing him with knives and left him in a remote spot, naked and bleeding from a total of 68 wounds. 

The 33-year-old Padilla, who lost two quarts of blood, says the torture was accompanied by insults, mockery and a simple, frequently repeated message: "Stop saying bad things about the Servant of God." 

That would be Samuel Joaquin Flores, spiritual leader of one of Mexico's largest and most flamboyant evangelical churches, the Light of the World, which claims 1.5 million followers in Mexico and 5.5 million worldwide. (Religion experts believe the numbers are wildly exaggerated.) 

The church, founded in 1926 by Flores' father, is based in the west-central city of Guadalajara, where it has a soaring cathedral the size of three football fields. 

Padilla, a former member of the sect, is a principal witness in one of the seven criminal cases pending against Joaquin. The charges include  making death threats, breaking and entering, theft, defamation and assault. 

Even more explosive are charges against Joaquin and top aides of systematic child molesting going back decades. The allegations are too old to be prosecutable as criminal cases, but they form part of the basis for a case against the sect for violating Mexico's law on religious associations. 

 In a series of interviews, Padilla has described being abused at age 16 by Joaquin, who claimed, Padilla says, to be sexless "like an angel." 

 "A wound in your body will heal in a fortnight,  or a month," Padilla said in an interview last year. "But it's been 17 years and my (psychological) wound has still not healed." 

The sect, which is believed to recruit heavily among Mexican Americans living in California, is wealthy, secretive and extremely well-connected to Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). 

Critics blame the relationship for the inaction of federal authorities in the seven months since they were first given evidence of the accusations against Light of the World. 

Under a 1992 law covering religious groups, "conduct prejudicial to the health or physical integrity of persons" is outlawed, as is any link between churches or sects and political parties.
 

 `MAFIA-STYLE CULT' 

Government officials, said Hugo Elizalde, a human rights expert specializing in religious abuses, "are colluding in the protection of this mafia-style cult leadership." 

The Interior Ministry's department of religious affairs has yet to interview Joaquin over the allegations, and it has not explained its failure to do so. For the past week, no one in the department has been available to answer this question. 

Light of the World's political wing, the National Federation of Provincial Settlers, is affiliated to the National Confederation of Popular Organizations, the umbrella body for PRI-linked grass- roots political groups. The cult is accused by former members not only of inducing its followers to vote en masse for the party but of holding training workshops to teach elderly people how to mark their ballot paper. 

At least one former federal congressman, Rogelio Zamora, is known to have been a deacon of Light of the World -- a clear violation of Mexican law. 

Attention first focused on the cult in the wake of the March 1997 mass suicide in San Diego by members of the Heaven's Gate sect. 

Mexico's Interior Ministry is known to have commissioned research to establish whether Light of the World also had potential for mass suicide, and local media coverage first centered on this aspect. 

But as Light of the World representatives began to defend themselves, accusing journalists of being led astray by disinformation produced by rival religious groups, former sect members began to speak out. 

They described how the children of families belonging to Light of the World would be procured by Joaquin's aides to perform sexual favors for the leader. The alleged abuses included being forced to dance naked, sometimes in front of still or video cameras, and carrying out rapes and beatings.
 

 VIRGINITY AS A PRESENT 

 Several witnesses, including Padilla, spoke of being drugged before the abuse took place. 

 Amparo Aguilar, now 30, said she was told at the age of 13 by a female aide to Joaquin: "You have your purity, your virginity. And you can give that to him as a present." 

Aguilar says she and a group of five or six other girls were told to bathe the sect leader, who later raped her. 

After going public with their accusations, the victims began to receive threats. Fearful of being physically attacked or even killed, they sought protection both from federal authorities and the state government of  Jalisco, of which Guadalajara is the capital. 

Vague promises were made, but nothing was done, even after Padilla was attacked in the street outside his house. Asked why police did not act, a spokesman for the Jalisco Justice Department said this week that protection is the responsibility of the Public Security Department. A Public Security spokesman passed the buck back, saying that Justice was responsible.
 

 SECT DENIES ALL 

 Light of the World spokesman Joel Silva denied that the sect had threatened or attacked anyone. He attributed all accusations to a campaign of denigration mounted by unspecified rival churches that were exploiting the resentment of former sect members. 

"Either Padilla was a voluntary kidnap victim, or he was involuntarily manipulated by the group that is behind him," Silva said. "We have no interest in hurting anyone, physically or verbally." 

Jorge Erdely, co-editor of a book on the sect published last month, said Padilla was a key contributor. The kidnap, he added, was an attempt to frighten him and others into silence. 

"These people have taken President Ernesto Zedillo at his word -- that in Mexico `no one is above the law,' " Erdely said. 

 The president, he suggested, should make good on the claim. 

 

 THE SECT AND THE RULING PARTY 

Fernando Flores, a former "unconditional," or member of Light of the World's inner circle, and the sect's designated historian, said in an interview that the cult's relationship with the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) dates from 1943. 

During his time with the sect, Flores said, "We had orders from (cult leader) Samuel Joaquin (Flores) to deliver large contingents to PRI election meetings." While providing the crowds was a good way of getting politicians in his pocket, Joaquin eventually upped the ante, Flores said. 

In 1985, he succeeded in getting Light of the World formally affiliated  with the National Confederation of Popular Organizations, the umbrella body for PRI-linked grassroots political groups and a rich source of funding, Flores said. "In return," he said, "Light of the World would provide election workers for the PRI. 

"Joaquin would tell his followers, using biblical texts, that `the authorities are put there by God, and they have to be obeyed.' In his speeches at election time, he would often say, `I'm going to tell you what party we're going to vote for.' " 

Another source said he was personally aware of the cult's participation in PRI electoral fraud. He said he witnessed the exchange of genuine ballot boxes for ones stuffed with PRI votes, and that on one occasion he stored the box full of real votes in his house. 

 

-SOURCE: THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
-DATE-  Thursday, 19 Feb 1998 
-PAGE-   A8
-ORIGINAL HEAD-   Powerful Evangelical Cult Brings Controversy,   Fear in Mexico 
-AUTHOR-   Phil Gunson 
-CREDIT-   Chronicle Foreign Service 
-SUBJECT-   POLITICAL PARTIES: RELIGION: CULTS:

 
 Comentario editorial

El título original del artículo incluye la clasificación de “evangélica” para la secta la Luz del Mundo. En México, artículos publicados por la revista Religiones y Sociedad de la Secretaría de Gobernación la clasificaba así, y una minoría de pastores pentecostales.  Especialistas y antropólogos de la religión, opinan que no lo es. Lo mismo ha afirmado CONFRATERNICE, la principal alianza de líderes pentecostales evangélicos del país.

Por dicha razón, hemos omitido del encabezado inicial el nombre “Evangelical”, aunque se aclara en la fuente que el título original en inglés lo incluía. Les compete a las iglesias evangélicas de México deslindarse o confirmar públicamente si la Luz del Mundo es o no evangélica y las razones para sustentar su posición. ¿Interesado? Participe de la discusión. Vea la encuesta en la página de inicio u opine desde aquí.

 

¿Es la Luz del Mundo una secta o una Iglesia evangélica?

 

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