Schools Burned as Sect Tightens Grip on Mexico’s ‘New Jerusalem’
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 shows up 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 the wearing of “indecent” clothes.
Men wear long pants and shirts with long sleeves, 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 cell phones, 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, some 430 kilometers (270 miles) west of Mexico City, has been an offbeat tourist attraction for years.
But that changed on July 6 when community leader Rosa Gomez, allegedly acting after receiving a vision from the Virgin Mary, ordered a state-run preschool and elementary school in the town destroyed.
The schools were used by the children of some 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 told AFP 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’ …” His gentle voice trails off as he smiles.
Two followers in their sixties, who identified themselves as Santos and Jacinto, said it was the virgin who didn’t 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.
A message from above
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.
The Catholic Church swiftly excommunicated both of them, but the village nevertheless attracted believers from across Mexico.
One of Nuevo Jerusalen’s attractions is its “cathedral,” a building that can be accessed only with special permission, where followers take turns leading a 24-hour vigil.
“Here, we sing day and night because the Virgin is alive and we cannot leave her alone,” Father Luis explained.
Over the years, however, rifts have appeared in the community.
Some were caused by rivalries between the clairvoyants who succeeded Romero, with some claiming to have spoken to Mexican president Lazaro Cardenas, who died in 1970, and Pope Paul VI, who died in 1978.
Others simply could not take the strict community rules.
Those who left the cult but stayed in the village, such as Emiliano Juarez, say conservative New Jerusalem residents want to impose their will by force.
“The schools were a problem for them because the things taught there undermined their abuses,” Juarez said.
The ultimate goal, Juarez said, is to kick the dissidents out.
For Father Luis, it’s all very simple. “There are rules here and anyone who lives in this town has to follow them,” he said in his soft voice.
“If you don’t agree, you can leave,” he said. “The goal of coming here is because you want to change.”
The dissidents complain that state authorities have taken a hands-off approach. Juarez said that years of complaining of sect abuses have gone unheeded.
Local officials have been mediating between the two groups, and Michoacan Governor Fausto Vallejo told reporters an investigation is underway to punish the culprits for the school burning, but up to now there have been no arrests.