Hundreds of thousands of members of the Light of the World church have travelled to Mexico to take part in their traditional mass baptisms. The organisation is embroiled in a sex crimes scandal, with its leader Naasón Joaquín García absent from the celebrations after his arrest in the US.
Some 600,000 followers from 58 countries have descended on the city of Guadalajara, where La Luz del Mundo has its international headquarters, for their week-long “holy convocation”, when leaders hold mass baptisms and a “holy supper”.
The fundamentalist Christian organisation was founded in 1926 by Mexican Eusebio Joaquín González, Mr García’s grandfather. It claims to have 1.8 million followers in Mexico and millions more worldwide, although many religious experts question these numbers.
The church describes itself as a “resurgence of the early Christian church”, and their followers believe 50-year-old Mr García is an apostle of Jesus. In recent years, the organisation’s influence has spread to the US, particularly in parts of California with large Hispanic populations.
Women cover their heads during services and sit separately from the men. Emotions often run high during their mass events and it was not any different this year, despite Mr García’s arrest in June.
Mr García and three female co-defendants, who are also members of the church, are facing 26 charges including human trafficking, production of child sex abuse images and forcible rape of a minor. The alleged crimes were committed in California between 2015 and 2018.
The defendants are accused of coercing underage girls into performing sex acts. According to the California Department of Justice, the girls were told that if they went against the wishes of “the apostle” they would be going against God.
Mr García allegedly lectured several of his underage victims “about a king having mistresses and stated that an apostle of God can never be judged for his actions”. He has pleaded not guilty, and the church denied all the charges.
Critics of the church have often accused Mr García of fostering a cult of personality around him and say the group resembles a sect rather than a church. He addressed his followers in Guadalajara in a letter he wrote from his jail cell in California, AFP news agency reports.
He assured them that while he awaits trial, he is fulfilling a different “divine mission”: preaching to his fellow prisoners, among them people from Russia, Ukraine and Croatia. “God’s plan is perfect, even though it is not always pleasant,” he said in the message read out at the gathering.
In Guadalajara, many followers believed in Mr García’s innocence. “I’m telling you with 100% certainty: he’s innocent. He’s an honourable man. His heart is a precious work of God,” 48-year-old Andres Riquelme, from Panama, told AFP.
Elpidio Acevedo, a 60-year-old man from Mexico who was among the newly baptised, said: “The church has never doubted for a moment that God will give his answer. We know that [he] is an honourable man, an innocent man. We’re waiting for God, patiently and in prayer.”
The judge in the case had initially set Mr García’s bail at $25m (£20m) but then doubled it at a hearing in July following a request from the prosecutors.
They feared his followers could be able to raise money to free him from custody, which would allow him to flee the country, according to the Los Angeles Times.
He has since been denied bail altogether by a judge who argued that Mr García was not only a flight risk but also a danger to the community.
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