Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Mexico church holds mass baptism despite leader's sex crimes scandal

Mexican Pentecostal church the Light of the World is in crisis, its leader facing pedophilia charges, but that has not stopped thousands of people from around the world traveling to its headquarters to be immersed in a giant baptismal pool.

The leader of the controversial church, Naason Joaquin Garcia, was arrested in Los Angeles in June on sex crimes charges, including child rape.

Joaquin, who claims to be the last apostle of Jesus, and three co-defendants are accused of coercing minor girls into performing sexual acts by telling them that going against his wishes would be going against God.

But if the scandal has diminished the fervor of the five million members the church claims worldwide, there is no sign of it at the Light of the World's annual gathering this week at its headquarters in Mexico's second city, Guadalajara.

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from 58 countries have descended on the western city to take part in a week-long "holy convocation," the church's main event of the year, which will culminate in a "holy supper" Wednesday.

With mass baptisms, 2,000 gigantic loaves of bread and 28,000 liters of wine, the faithful are clinging fast to their church -- and its leader, absent for the first time ever this year.

"I'm telling you with 100 percent certainty: He's innocent. He's an honorable man. His heart is a precious work of God," said Andres Riquelme, 48, who traveled from his native Panama to be baptized along with more than 2,000 other believers Monday, the first of three days of mass baptisms.

An enormous photo of him hangs above the church's choir, his name is constantly on his followers' lips, and he even addressed a letter to the gathering from his California jail cell.

In the text, which was read out at the meeting, he assured his followers that while he awaits trial on 26 US felony counts, he is fulfilling a different "divine mission": preaching to his fellow prisoners.