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COLUMN ONE

A Growing Faith--and Outrage

Members of a burgeoning Mexican church praise its dynamic leader. But critics allege a range of sins, including sexual abuse, which are strongly denied. The controversy has expanded to the Southland.

March 10, 1998|MARY BETH SHERIDAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GUADALAJARA — In the predawn darkness, the floodlit cathedral looms like a snow-covered mountain over this poor neighborhood. Inside, 15,000 faithful have been waiting for two hours, but they show no sign of fatigue.

They are expecting their Moses.

Suddenly, a pudgy preacher in a brown suit strides up the marble stairs to the altar, a golden tree trunk. Thousands of worshipers break into chest-heaving sobs. Others furiously wave white handkerchiefs and cry "Glory to Christ!"

Samuel Joaquin has arrived.

"There are no words to explain what he is. It's something divine," said awed worshiper Vicenta Equihwa.

The 61-year-old Joaquin is perhaps Mexico's most controversial religious leader. His fundamentalist Christian church, La Luz del Mundo (The Light of the World), is one of the country's fastest-growing faiths. Offering a warm community atmosphere, a strict moral code and a promise of eternal salvation, the church is expanding in Latino areas of the United States, including Southern California.

But critics say Joaquin is an egomaniac who has sexually abused youngsters and created a cult that preys on the poor--charges he denies. Several of his critics claim they've been harassed and even beaten; one former member was stabbed 57 times last month in an attack he blames on the church.

Now the controversy is spilling across the border. La Luz del Mundo is trying to open a church in Ontario, its 39th in Southern California. But some residents, expressing fear about Joaquin and the church's practices, are fighting its petition for a city permit.

"On the one hand, we want to maintain freedom of religion. On the other hand, we want to zero in on those destructive sects that abuse communities and individuals," said Lourdes Arguelles, an Ontario professor leading the fight.

The Luz del Mundo controversy actually had its genesis in a Southern California event: When 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult killed themselves in Rancho Santa Fe last spring, Mexican media set their sights on religious groups at home.

Could there be a Mexican Marshall Applewhite? Yes, responded an obscure anti-cult group that pointed to Joaquin. In fact, no evidence has emerged to support such claims, and Joaquin denies any intention to order a mass suicide. But the incident focused attention on the church.

In the past year, Mexican newspapers have delved into the practices of La Luz del Mundo, producing extensive reports about alleged sexual abuse and orgies, as well as the church's close ties to Mexico's long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. Television and radio programs have featured debates on the church, questioning whether this is an issue of religious freedom or exploitation.

La Luz del Mundo, founded in 1926 by Joaquin's father, a peasant turned military officer called Aaron, claims to have 1.5 million members--which would make it the second-largest church in this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country. It claims an additional 3.5 million members worldwide. (Experts dispute the church's estimates of its size.)

But while proselytizing energetically, the church has kept a low profile, operating mainly in poor neighborhoods. In Guadalajara, members are known mainly by their dress. Women wear ankle-length skirts and long hair; they are forbidden to wear slacks, makeup or jewelry. Many members live in three neighborhoods dominated by the church and are active supporters of the PRI.

In the past year, the veil has been pulled back on the once-obscure church. Taking advantage of the new media interest, several former members from Guadalajara have gone public.

They have described a church that requires members to seek permission for even the most mundane activities--to go downtown, or on vacation. Joaquin is so powerful he chooses the spouses for a corps of elite church members known as "Unconditionals," they say. And members are urged to contribute heavily to the church, whose leader lives in luxury, they say. The church replies that Joaquin has a chauffeur and cars but lives more modestly than local politicians.

But the most shocking charges allege sexual abuse of young church members.

Amparo Aguilar is a 31-year-old shopkeeper with long, brown hair and a round, gentle face. She calmly recalls the day nearly 20 years ago, when, she claims, she was invited to Joaquin's home in Hermosa Provincia (Beautiful Province), the neighborhood where the church is based.

A female assistant of Joaquin's took the girl to the church leader, who was in bed, Aguilar claimed.

"He asked me if I could get rid of his headache. I said, 'How? I have no pills, no aspirin,' " Aguilar said.

With that, she said, Joaquin and his assistant grabbed her and stripped her. She resisted the church leader, she said. But the two pinned her to the bed, and Joaquin raped her, Aguilar said.

"They made me promise not to say anything, because if I did, God would punish me," she said.

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