Nueva Jerusalen, Mexico • Sprouting out of the corn fields of western Mexico rises a hill crowned with two arches and four towers, marking the gates of an improvised "holy land" that farmers built brick by brick over nearly four decades. The sprawling complex, they believed, would be the only place saved in the coming apocalypse: Nueva Jerusalen, or "New Jerusalem."
A cult has since sprung up around the detailed instructions that Our Lady of the Rosary supposedly left for followers, including how believers should dress and live. No non-religious music, no alcohol or tobacco, no television or radio, no modern dress and, the injunction that has landed them in trouble, no public education.
That last rule is at the heart of a confrontation brewing at the complex among the sect’s traditionalists, its more reformist members and the Mexican government. The conflict escalated into a tense standoff Monday between the sect and federal and state police.
According to traditionalists, the government-mandated uniforms, school books and lesson plans, not to mention the computers and televisions now used in many Mexican classrooms, would violate the Virgin Mary’s orders, on her own sacred ground.
Organized squadrons of church followers enforced those beliefs in July when they used sledgehammers and pickaxes to tear down at least two school buildings, doused the school furniture and texts in gasoline and set the whole mess on fire.
Authorities in the western state of Michoacan have vowed that public, secular education, one of the few common bonds that hold Mexican society together, would not be sacrificed, and they pledged Monday that about 250 children would be back in class in Nueva Jerusalen.
That prompted swift reaction from conservative church followers, who formed a line inside the gates to face down dozens of police who showed up with patrol trucks and an armored vehicle, in what turned out to be a daylong standoff.
Federal police commander Miguel Guerrero said he was talking with both sect traditionalists and reformists who believe in the sect’s central tenets but want a modern education for their children, to reach some sort of compromise.
"We are simply discussing the community’s situation," Guerrero said after the talks. But neither side was budging: The reformists rejected a compromise to hold classes in another town, and the traditionalists weren’t going to let government schools and teachers into the community.
The faith of the people here is built on messages purportedly passed from the Virgin Mary to a defrocked Catholic priest, an illiterate old woman and a clairvoyant. That faith has since developed into a complex hierarchy of brightly-robed followers, with women wearing purple, red, white or green robes, depending on their "order" or vocation.
"New Jerusalem was born when the Holy Mother returned to Earth, with God’s permission, for the last time, to form a new salvation and a new creed," said Father Luis Maria, who like the rest of the clergy practices a form of the Latin Mass but is not recognized in any way by the Roman Catholic Church.
Maria says the community’s rules are aimed at banishing "all the vices and bad habits" that condemn the rest of the world to perdition.
But after the group’s prediction that the world would end in 1999 didn’t come to pass, it became harder to keep younger generations interested in praying almost constantly for the earth’s salvation. Praying is the principal activity of the sect’s traditionalists, aside from temple building and farming.
To the reformists, the Virgin’s purported instructions can border on the surreal: Sports such as soccer are banned because they are played with a round ball that resembles the planet Earth, and thus represent kicking the planet. But American football is allowed because the ball is more elongated.
To people such as Oscar Montero, 26, a young man who was born in Nueva Jerusalen after his parents joined the sect in the 1970s, the restrictions have grown too chafing.
"I see these things as something very absurd," said Montero, who joined a group of hundreds of young people who marched through the community Monday to demand access to education.
"Dancing isn’t evil, though smoking is," said Montero. "Drinking too much is bad, but dancing and having a good time isn’t."
Montero said he has a television, radio and Internet service at home, noting, "I wasn’t born here because of my faith, I was born here by chance."
The sect was founded in 1973 by a parish priest, Nabor Cardenas, who disagreed with the modernization of the Catholic Church and the abandoning of the Latin Mass.
He found his oracle in an illiterate 63-year-old local farm woman, Gabina Sanchez, who heard the voice of the Virgin Mary. Dubbed "Mama Salome," she essentially directed the evolution of Nueva Jerusalen together with "Papa Nabor."
Together, they created an idiosyncratic vision of how life would have been lived in biblical times, and imposed it on thousands of followers.Next Page >
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