(RNS) — Mexico’s largest evangelical church, La Luz del Mundo, is defending its leader, despite his arrest on a slew of sex crime charges involving minors.
The church has denied all charges against Naasón Joaquín García, known by church members as the “The Apostle,” in a statement. Church leaders say they are confident Garcia’s innocence will be proven.
“The Apostle of Jesus Christ has always adhered to the law and demonstrated full respect to government institutions and the dignity of all persons,” the church said in a statement.
Garcia and three other women affiliated with the church are facing 26 felony charges for crimes allegedly committed between 2015 and 2018.
The defendants are accused of trafficking underage girls and forcing them to perform sex acts on each other and on Garcia. On Wednesday, a judge set Garcia’s bail at an unprecedented $50 million.
California prosecutors allege that one defendant took photos of three naked girls to give to “the servant of God” — Garcia — and told them that going against the desires of “the Apostle” was going against God. Garcia also allegedly gave the girls a speech about a king having mistresses and claiming that an apostle of God cannot be judged for his actions.
“Crimes like those alleged in this complaint have no place in our society. Period,” said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. “We must not turn a blind eye to sexual violence and trafficking in our state.”
Some congregants told media the charges were part of a smear campaign against the church, which has faced discrimination in Mexico from the country’s Catholic majority.
“We’re united in prayer,” church minister Jack Freeman told the L.A. Times. “An attack like this, which is meant to stumble us or bring us apart, it actually brings us closer together. … We’re not giving up. The church is still going to go forward. We believe this is still the church of the Lord.”
Headquartered in the Catholic stronghold of Guadalajara, Mexico, La Luz del Mundo is the country’s largest evangelical church. The organization, whose name translates to The Light of the World, says it has more than 15,000 churches in 58 countries around the world.
In Southern California alone, where the group has flourished among Spanish-speaking populations, the organization has some 40 churches. Tens of thousands of members attended a “Holy Supper” gathering held last year at the Glen Helen Amphitheater in San Bernardino.
While the church has claimed to have around 5 million members, Andrew Chesnut, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, said they likely have closer to 1 or 1.5 million followers around the world — particularly centered in Mexico, Los Angeles and Houston.
Chesnut, whose work focuses on Latin American Pentecostalism, described the church as a “charismatic evangelical” sect that broke away from their mainstream Pentecostal roots in the 1930s.
Founded in 1926 by García’s grandfather, Eusebio Joaquín González, La Luz del Mundo rejects the concept of the Trinity. It teaches that Jesus is God’s son and that church leaders, like Mr. García, his father and grandfather, are his apostles. They eschew religious symbolism, viewing crucifixes as idolatry. During worship, genders are segregated in the pews, and women cover their hair and wear long, modest skirts. Followers of La Luz del Mundo do not celebrate Christmas or Easter, but they do recognize the birthdays of García and the other apostles.
The religious group has faced previous accusations of sex abuse. In the late ’90s, several women claimed to have been raped and sexually abused by Samuel Joaquín Flores, García’s father and predecessor, two decades before.
Flores never faced charges.
La Luz del Mundo’s followers saw those accusations, as well as those facing García now, as proof of discrimination against them by Mexico’s Catholic majority, who often refer to them derogatorily as a sect or cult.
“They’ll definitely batten down the hatches and see this as a campaign orchestrated by the continuing Catholic influence in Mexico,” Chesnut said, noting the “godlike cult of personality” and “authoritarian hierarchical structure” around La Luz del Mundo’s leaders.
But in the last two decades, they have developed significant levels of political influence, too, Chesnut said. Last month, critics questioned whether Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrado had an evangelical agenda when a concert was held in honor of García’s 50th birthday at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City.
The California Department of Justice’s investigation into the church began in 2018, in part because of information received via its online complaint form for clergy abuse.
Between these charges and the Houston Chronicle’s investigations on sexual misconduct by Southern Baptist leaders, “we’re seeing that the whole sex abuse crisis is not necessarily a Catholic problem,” Chesnut said. “Many other groups are suffering from this as well.”