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Mexico cult eyes 'evil' secular schools

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Thu August 23, 2012
  • Three people are injured in clashes, as a cult blocks children from attending school
  • Governor: "We need to remind these people that they are not living in a separate territory"
  • Officials from Mexico's Council of Bishops have disavowed the group

(CNN) -- Authorities are negotiating with a religious cult in southwestern Mexico, trying to persuade leaders to allow public schools to operate in the isolated community, state media reported.

"It is a problem of fundamentalism," Michoacan state government secretary Jesus Reyna Garcia told Mexico's state-run Notimex news agency on Wedesday.

The talks came after residents of New Jerusalem blocked roads into the community and attacked children, parents and teachers trying to enter a house that had been converted into a school. Three people were injured in the clashes Monday, state officials said.

In July, members of the cult destroyed the only school building in the town, saying the Virgin of the Rosary, who they worship, told them school buildings were built by the devil and were to be demolished.

The rising tension in the 3,000-person community, about 250 miles (400 kilometers) west of Mexico City, has drawn the attention of security officials in Michoacan state, who said 100 police were at the ready.

"We need to remind these people that they are not living in a separate territory, in an island," Gov. Fausto Vallejo told reporters.

Leaders of the cult said they were not opposed to educating the community's youth.

"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.

Meanwhile, officials from Mexico's Council of Bishops have disavowed the group.

"While they use symbols of the Catholic Church, we reiterate that they have nothing to do with it," the council said in a statement Tuesday.

The school year was scheduled to begin on Monday.

"We're willing to keep on teaching, but we need security guarantees for ourselves, the community and the children," teacher Ruben Gaona Rafael said.

Some residents of the Turicato municipality, where New Jerusalem is located, have asked the government to intervene, saying they want their children to go to school without fear of being attacked.

"We hope that the government will do something about it, although we haven't seen anything yet," resident Manuel Campos said. "We may have no other choice but to defend ourselves."

Mexico's Catholic bishops called on the local government to do more.

"Laws should be followed, and in this case, it is the local authorities who should intervene and impose order in a conflict that, if it is not attended to, could go even farther. It is not something that should wait. Now is the time to act and exercise the rule of law that has been violated," the statement said.

New Jerusalem was founded decades ago, and there have been clashes reported among its residents in the past.

CNN's Krupskaia Alis and Rafael Romo and's Rodrigo Aguiar and America Juarez contributed to this report.

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