Tue, Jul 31, 2012 - Page 7 News List

FEATURE: Mexican cult torches two schools

AFP, NUEVO JERUSALEN, Mexico

Women dressed in religious attire walk around the church of Our Lady of the Rosary on July 18 at Nueva Jerusalen community, in Michoacan State, Mexico.

Photo: AFP

It is a painful memory for the young Mexican — four hours locked up in the jail cell at the age of 14. His crime? Playing football.

“It was forbidden,” Cirilo Ceferino recalls.

He is now aged 21, but the memories flood back as Ceferino surveys the ruins of two schools that members of the Virgin of the Rosary, a fringe religious cult, recently destroyed and set on fire.

Ceferino no longer lives in the village of Nuevo Jerusalen — “New Jerusalem” — population 4,000, but goes there regularly to visit his parents.

Founded in 1973, the Virgin of the Rosary, a nominally Catholic cult that the Vatican does not recognize, shuns sports because they require wearing “indecent” clothes.

Men wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts, while women wear long dresses with bright colors and head scarves. Make-up is banned.

At the village entrance a sign lays out the dress code: “Women wearing short skirts or low-cut dresses and without sleeves are forbidden to enter.” Also banned: “Men with long hair who are dressed dishonestly.”

Modern items like cellphones, televisions and radios are forbidden, as well as alcohol and non-religious music. There was no electricity until 2000.

There is a roll call at each of the three daily religious services, and followers must dedicate one day a week to work for the community. Locals raise corn, sugar cane and beans for a living.

The village, located in Michoacan state, about 430km west of Mexico City, has been an offbeat tourist attraction for years.

However, that changed on July 6 when community leader Rosa Gomez, allegedly acting after receiving a vision from the Virgin Mary, ordered a state-run pre-school and elementary school in the town to be destroyed.

The schools were used by the children of about 300 “dissidents” that split with the hyper-conservative majority in 2006, seeking closer contact with the outside world and eager to give their children a state-recognized education.

About 100 community members armed with pikes and mallets heeded Gomez’s call, smashing down the building walls then setting the remains on fire.

Gomez, who goes by the name of Mother Catalina, is the daughter of the late “Pope” Nabor, the founder of Nuevo Jerusalen.

“The Virgin of the Rosary visited me, she wants us to destroy the schools because that is where the devil lives,” Gomez told local reporters at the time.

On a recent visit, one of the sect’s priests who gave his name only as Father Luis said that the villagers acted spontaneously because they did not want the schools.

“There had been protests ... the government did not want to resolve the problem, so it reached the point that the people said, ‘If they do not pay attention to us’ ... ” Father Luis said, trailing off.

Two followers in their sixties, who identified themselves as Santos and Jacinto, said it was the Virgin who did not want the schools.

“There’s already a parish school,” Santos said, referring to the cult’s education center, which is not officially recognized by Mexican authorities.

Nuevo Jerusalen was founded when a peasant named Gabina Romero claimed the Virgin of the Rosary appeared to her with a message for Nabor Cardenas, a priest in a neighboring parish, to found a village of penitents in order to save the world from a pending doom.

Cardenas became “Pope Nabor” and Romero became “Mother Salome,” a clairvoyant who claimed she regularly received messages from the Virgin.

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