Authorities in Mexico believe they have finally made progress in negotiations with a religious cult whose members have been physically blocking teachers from entering into their small walled community for three days.
Government Secretary Jesus Reyna Garcia told Mexican media that progress has been made and the community leaders have agreed to end the standoff.
The talks came after members of the religious sect blocked roads into the New Jerusalem community and attacked children, parents, and teachers who tried to attend a small house that had been converted into a school. The church supporters, including women dressed in the robes and headscarves that the sect requires them to wear, started fistfights with residents who wanted their children to go to school at improvised classrooms set up after the school buildings were destroyed.
In July, members of the cult destroyed the numerous government school buildings in the town, saying the Virgin of the Rosary, whom they worship, told them school buildings were built by the devil and were to be demolished. They used sledgehammers to destroy the schools and then doused them with gasoline and set fire to the school furniture and computer equipment.
“It is a problem of fundamentalism,” said Garcia, “If I wanted I could make sure that classes begin tomorrow with constant police presence, but you cannot carry on like that for an entire school year.”
The blockade is affecting more than 200 children in the tiny community of 3,000. Before the progress made by Mexican authorities today, many local officials in the western state of Michoacán said it was time to call in a large-scale police operation.
“We need to remind these people that they are not living on an island,” said the governor of the state, Fausto Vallejo Figueroa, to reporters in Mexico.
Under the Mexican law, grade school education is compulsory. Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission and the Roman Catholic Church said that the refusal to allow classes in the town of New Jerusalem is a violation of children’s human rights. The school year officially began on Monday.
“They want to impose beliefs, not a religion . . . by taking away the right every child has to attend classes in government-provided education,” the Mexican Bishops Council said in a statement.
The council does not recognize the cult, which was formed in 1973 by a defrocked Catholic priest who objected to the ending of masses in Latin and other modernization moves. The community prohibits formal schooling, television, radio, modern music, dress and fashion.
Leaders of the cult are not opposed to education in general but insist on being able to appoint their own teachers, create their own curriculum, and mandate robes and headscarves for female students.
“What happens is that those people are using the school as a way to introduce to our community things that are banned, like fashion, immorality, vice, drugs and alcoholism,” said a New Jerusalem Cathedral spokesman known as Father Luis to CNN.
The New Jerusalem community also believes their compound will be the only place on Earth spared in an impending apocalypse.