MEXICO CITY – Adherents of a religious sect in western Mexico are physically blocking school teachers from entering their walled community, setting up one of the most high-profile confrontations between religious and civil authorities in Mexico since the 1930s.
Local officials in the western state of Michoacan said Wednesday it may be time to call in a large-scale police operation to enforce the right to schooling in a community that has largely ruled itself according to what it considers biblical guidelines for almost 40 years. The New Jerusalem community prohibits formal schooling, television, radio, modern music, dress and fashion.
"I think the next step is to go in and enforce the rule of law," said Efrain Barrera, spokesman for the township of Turicato, where the sect's walled-off compound is.
Under Mexican law, grade school education is compulsory, and Mexico's National Human Rights Commission and the Roman Catholic Church said Tuesday that the refusal to allow classes in New Jerusalem is a violation of children's human rights.
They called on the government to break the town's blockade, which has been limited to fistfights but could escalate. Members of the sect recently attacked and destroyed school buildings.
"It is surprising that they want to impose beliefs, not a religion, on grade-school children in their formative stage, by taking away the right every child has to attend classes in government-provided education," the Mexican Bishops Council said in a statement.
"The local authorities should intervene and resolve the conflict, which, if it isn't taken care of, could escalate," the council said. "This is an issue that cannot wait, this is the moment to act and defend the rule of law."
The church does not recognize the sect, which was founded in 1973 by a renegade Catholic priest who objected to the abandonment of Latin masses and other modernization moves.
The group has demanded the right to appoint its own teachers, set its own curriculum and mandate robes and headscarves for female pupils, claiming that otherwise the schools would be introducing bad habits into the community. Girls at government schools in Mexico generally wear uniforms, including knee-length plaid skirts.
The group shuns telephones and its leaders were not available for comment Wednesday.
In July, gangs of sect followers used sledgehammers to destroy three government school buildings in the community, then doused them with gasoline and set fire to the school furniture and computer equipment.
On Monday, when the new school year was scheduled to start, gangs of church supporters, including women dressed in the bright-colored robes and headscarves the sect requires women to wear, engaged in fistfights with residents who wanted their children to go to school at improvised classrooms set up after the school buildings were destroyed. About a dozen government-paid teachers showed up, but were also driven off.
"They are damaging about 250 children," said Barrera. "It is not fair that older people want to reproduce and impose their own ignorance on a new generation."
There have been periodic reports of deaths, threats and beatings inside the compound, where about 5,000 adherents live in brick houses inside medieval-castle-style walls. But no outside authorities have ever been allowed to conduct official functions like policing or registering births and deaths, a situation long tolerated for a community that voted overwhelmingly for the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which has governed Michoacan for nearly all of the last eight decades.
"What we are demanding is to be able to enter and investigate what has been happening, because there have been systematic crimes and violations of the law since 1973, when the community was founded," Barrera said.
The Human Rights Commission said Tuesday it had already sent inspectors to New Jerusalem and demanded the government send police to guard the schoolchildren and classrooms.
The religion was founded by Nabor Cardenas, "Papa Nabor," a defrocked parish priest who said it was based on messages from the Virgin Mary relayed by an illiterate old woman. Together with supposed clairvoyant Agapito Gomez, who channeled voices, orders and predictions from the spirit world, they ordered the building of the compound, along with towers, walls and multiple church buildings.
Members believe it will be the only place on earth spared from an impending Apocalypse, which they had predicted would occur in cataclysmic volcanic eruptions around the 2000 millennium.
Residents of the New Jerusalem compound cannot use many modern conveniences, while women are not allowed to wear makeup, and must dress in robes and are referred to as "nuns" or "courtesans." Residents recite Mass in Latin and use old exorcism and baptism rituals long abandoned by the mainstream church.
Religious conflicts, often between evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics, still occur in some parts of rural Mexico, and have sometimes led to thousands of residents being expelled from their towns.
But the last large-scale religious violence occurred in the 1926-29 Cristero war, when harsh anti-clerical laws sparked an armed uprising by Roman Catholic rebels against Mexico's secular government. Tens of thousands of people died.