Oct 31, 2016

Uganda: Kibwetere Used HIV Scourge to Lure Victims - New Book Reveals

30 OCTOBER 2016
The Monitor (Kampala)
By Stephen Wandera

Kampala — A new book that seeks to lift the lid off the mysterious massacre of more than 1,000 people in a church in Kanungu District reveals that Joseph Kibwetere took advantage of the HIV/Aids scourge to lure unsuspecting victims to their doomsday.

The Kanungu Tragedy, authored by Fr Narcisio Bagumisiriza, reveals that the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, a religious cult, which was accused of the deaths in an inferno in 2000, used the raging Aids pandemic to warn of an end to the world.

Speaking at the launch of the book at Christ the King Church in Kampala on Friday, Fr Bagumisiriza said the whereabouts of Joseph Kibwetere, the mysterious leader of the cult, remain unsolved and it's unclear whether he is dead or alive.

"He took advantage of HIV/Aids that was a big problem in society to justify his argument that it was a punishment from God to sinners as the world came to an end," Fr Bagumisiriza said.

"During my research, I found out that some journals published wrong information insinuating that the Kanungu incident was suicide. The dead were set ablaze by Kibwetere. He had promised his flock that the world would end on December 31, 1999," he added.

A Parliamentary committee that probed the massacre ruled that there was laxity on the part of police because prior to the deaths, there was a complaint by residents that was not followed through by the security agencies.

The report by Parliament's Defence Committee indicated that the police, acting on a complaint from a citizen about dubious activities being carried out by the Joseph Kibwetere group, curiously flagged off the sect as an NGO.

Rattled by how Kibwetere managed to disguise his activities, Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda yesterday said the government was forced to amend the NGO Act in the wake of the Kanungu massacres.

"Let us not take things for granted. What happened 16 years ago can still happen today. Let us still play our role of coming together for worship but look at each other. Be vigilant so that masqueraders like Kibwetere are exposed," Dr Rugunda said.

Preliminary investigations by the police at the time indicated that the killings were well planned by the cult leaders after it apparently became clear that the world was not going to come to an end at the turn of millennium. For instance, on March 24, two mass graves containing 153 bodies were found at a cult compound in Kalingo, 45 km to the west of Kanungu. Some had been dead for more than four months.

Ms Adyeeri Omara, the Delight Uganda Ltd chief executive officer, bought the first book at Shs200,000 while Dr Rugunda bought five books at Shs1 million. The official price of the book is Shs25,000.

The background

Cult leaders: Fr Dominic Kataribabo.

According to a March 2000 BBC report, Fr Kataribabo left the US in 1987, after earning a degree in religious studies from Loyola Marymount University, one of America's top Roman Catholic colleges. Fr Kataribabo also had a degree from Makerere University and was rector of Kitabi Seminary where he was known as a good counsellor, the BBC reported.Little is known about Angelina Mugisha, who was also among the cult leaders.

Credonia Mwerinde

Born 1952 in Kanungu at Kateete, Nyabugoto, Mwerinde was the high priestess and co-founder of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments. She was born in a village where Kibwetere's camp was located. Among the followers of the cult, she was referred to as the 'programmer'. She is reported to have first contacted Kibwetere in 1989.

About the cult: The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God sprung up in the 1980s after breaking away from the mainstream Roman Catholic Church. The focus of the preaching by the group was that to avoid apocalypse [end of the world], believers had to strictly follow the Ten Commandments. Cult leaders preached that the world would come to an end in the year 2000.


Jehovah’s Witnesses look to unload another prime Brooklyn property

It’s one of three buildings the Witnesses are currently offering on sale

OCTOBER 31, 2016

As the Jehovah’s Witnesses continue to decamp from Brooklyn Heights and make their way to their new headquarters in Warwick, New York, the group has listed another valuable property for sale. This time it’s one of the religious organization’s residential buildings at 97 Columbia Heights, the Brooklyn Eagle first reported.

The 11-story building currently comes with 97 apartments and could fetch anywhere between $60 million-$88 million, real estate experts told the Commercial Observer. And it’s most likely primed for a condo conversion, those experts told the CO.

The site was once home to the tallest building in Brooklyn, Hotel Margaret, but that building was destroyed in a fire in 1980. The Witnesses purchased it in 1986 and housed many of their headquarters staff there in subsequent years.

The organization new headquarters began operating in Warwick on September 1 this year, and the property at 97 Columbia Heights marks one of the last few properties the organization owns in the neighborhood. The tower has a rooftop terrace, 30 parking spots, and private outdoor terraces in many of its apartments, and many of those units boast views of the East River and the Manhattan skyline.

The organization has sold about $1.25 billion in assets between 2004 and now, an analysis by the CO this past September revealed. One of the biggest deals relating to that portfolio was the sale of their iconic watchtower building for $340 million in August this year. Jared Kushner was one of the buyers, along with LIVWRK and the CIM Group. Kushner and LIVWRK had previously shelled out $345 million for five buildings owned by the Witnesses in Dumbo.

The Witnesses are currently selling two other buildings, a residential tower at 107 Columbia Heights, and a mixed-use building at 74 Adams Street in Dumbo. Earlier today it was revealed that the Witnesses had sold a four-story recreational facility at 69 Adams Street for an undisclosed sum, according to the Brooklyn Eagle.


Over 7K Attend Costa Rica Jehovah’s Witness Gathering

By Wendy Anders
October 31, 2016
The Costa Rica Star

By Wendy Anders

This weekend’s 3-day gathering of over 7,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses from the San José metropolitan area was held in La Guácima, Alajuela.

According to Wikipedia:

“Jehovah’s Witnesses is a millenarian restorationist Christian denomination with nontrinitarian beliefs distinct from mainstream Christianity. The group claims a worldwide membership of more than 8.2 million adherents involved in evangelism, convention attendance figures of more than 15 million, and an annual Memorial attendance of more than 19.9 million. Jehovah’s Witnesses are directed by the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a group of elders in Brooklyn, New York, which establishes all doctrines based on its interpretations of the Bible.”
In a 2010 academic paper published by Antonio Higuera Bonfil at the Quintana Roo University in southern Mexico, he notes the recent explosive growth of the religion in Central America. Over the past twenty five years, aggressive proselytism has led to a doubling of Jehovah Witnesses followers in Costa Rica, said Bonfil. Today over 22,000 practice the faith in Costa Rica.

Arnold Hilton, the church’s Costa Rica spokesman said that other gatherings are planned for followers living in Alajuela, Guanacaste, Limón, San Carlos, Puntarenas, and other areas of country.

From December 30 until January 1 another mass Jehovah’s Witness gathering will be held in Alajuela. And a special JW convention for Costa Rican sign language users (Lesco) will be held from January 6 to 8 at the religious group’s main assembly hall in Asunción de Belén, Heredia.


Jehovah's Witnesses incapable of free, informed refusal of blood, former adherent says

Lawrence Hughes went to court to have blood transfusions given to his daughter, 16, after she refused

By Stephen Smith, CBC News 

Oct 31, 2016

Jehovah's Witnesses facing the decision of whether to receive a blood transfusion are in no position to make a free and informed refusal of the procedure, alleges former Witness Lawrence Hughes.

Hughes's 16-year-old daughter Bethany was the focus of a high-profile court battle in 2002 in Calgary, Alta., over her refusal to accept blood transfusions after being diagnosed with leukemia.

Blood transfusions are forbidden under Jehovah's Witness doctrine, which holds that the Old and New Testaments command them to abstain from blood.

"Years of intense indoctrination, attending five or more meetings a week, coupled with undue influence, pressure and coercion, rob a Jehovah's Witness of free choice," Hughes alleges.

It's a situation that applies equally to Jehovah's Witness adults, said Hughes, who was introduced to the faith at the age of 30.

That view is supported by other former Witnesses who have also contacted CBC.


In late October, Quebec Health Minister Gaétan Barrette said that Éloise Dupuis, a 27-year-old Jehovah's Witness who died after refusing a transfusion, was "perfectly informed" about the risks of refusing a blood transfusion.

"She was informed. She signed documents many times. She knew, and she made it clear, that if something was to happen, because of her religion she didn't want any transfusion," Barrette told CBC Montreal.

Barrette expanded on that position Monday.

"It's their right to believe in what they want to believe in....  How they're educated, trained and so on, I'm not in a position to judge that. I'm just in a position to ensure that in that specific situation, there has been an instance where it was possible for the patient to have an informed consent," he said.

"Who am I to enter into this debate within their community? They have to resolve this issue themselves," he said. 

The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Canada, the faith group's legal entity, was contacted by CBC but declined to be interviewed.

Under Quebec's Civil Code, a competent adult aged 18 or older can refuse treatment as long as their refusal is considered "free" and "informed."

To be considered "free," it must be proven that the patient was not coerced into accepting or refusing treatment.

"Informed" means the adult patient understands the various treatment options and their possible risks and results.

A Quebec coroner is now investigating Dupuis's death and that of another Jehovah's Witness, 46-year-old Mirlande Cadet, to determine the circumstances involved, including whether blood transfusions were refused and, if so, whether the refusals met the standards of free and informed consent.

Both women suffered hemorrhages following caesarian sections that required emergency blood transfusions.

'Misinformation' and 'disfellowshipping'

Hughes alleges that the information in publications used by the Jehovah's Witnesses to educate their members is often false and hinders an informed refusal. 

"They say if you get a blood transfusion, you could get AIDS or the soul of the person who donated the blood. If that person was crazy, you'll go crazy. If that person was homosexual, you'll be a homosexual," he said.

"When you're given all this misinformation, how can you make an informed decision?"

Hughes also said he was made to sign a card declaring he would refuse blood transfusions in front of two church elders.

"If you don't sign that card, you're in big trouble," he said. 

"The elders would have a meeting with you and try to adjust your thinking. They use those exact words — 'adjust your thinking'," Hughes said.

Members with too many questions about blood policy are "disfellowshipped," Hughes said, referring to the church's term for excommunication.

Hughes alleged that the combined result of this alleged "misinformation" and coercion is a form of "mind control" exerted over Jehovah's Witnesses. 

"That's how a parent could sit there and watch their child bleed to death and do nothing about it. That totally goes against instinct. Even wild animals protect their young," Hughes said. 

"So, for a parent to allow their child to die because they need medical treatment, that shows the power this religion has on people."

Undue influence alleged

Hughes pointed to the alleged presence of a Jehovah's Witness hospital liaison committee (HLC) outside Dupuis's room to question how free her decision was.

"Just having those people in the next room, to me, is enough undue influence," he said.

The committees are composed of respected Witness elders and are dispatched to hospitals to advise medical staff on alternative bloodless treatments. 

Another former Witness told CBC that HLCs are "intimidating" and serve to enforce blood policy.

Hughes said the HLC member in his daughter's case was "not helpful."

"All he did was create friction and make things more difficult," Hughes said.

In his daughter's case, Hughes said the pressure on her to refuse blood came from many sources, including hundreds of cards and letters from Witnesses all around the world "encouraging her to be faithful and die for Jehovah."

"Jehovah's Witnesses were visiting her constantly. She had HLC members and two lawyers from [Jehovah's Witness] headquarters with her. They were all encouraging her to be loyal to Jehovah," he said.

"She was given a lot of misinformation, almost on a daily basis," he said. "It made me sick to my stomach."

Hughes broke with Jehovah's Witness blood policy when his daughter became ill, saying he could find nothing in scriptures promoted by church elders that prohibited blood.

"I thought of the scriptures that weren't used in the Jehovah's Witness Bible that talked about how life was a gift from God, and we should respect that gift," Hughes said.

'Like a ghost'

Hughes approved blood transfusions for Bethany and said he found himself immediately ostracized by his wife and three daughters along with his friends and others in the Jehovah's Witness community.

"I knew I was going to lose my family, but I wanted my daughter to have a chance to live so I did everything I could to have her receive proper treatments. And I hired a large law firm to represent me," he said.

A court eventually ordered that Bethany receive the transfusions, but she died from the aggressive form of leukemia a short time later.

Hughes later sued the Watchtower Society of Canada, the legal entity of the Jehovah's Witnesses, along with its lawyers, religious leaders and doctors, accusing them of deliberately misinforming his daughter about her medical treatment in 2002 and counselling her to refuse transfusions for leukemia.

The case was dismissed in 2008.

"My two daughters shunned me.  My wife at that time, Bethany's mother, she shunned me.  All the Jehovah's Witnesses shunned me, I was like a ghost.  Nobody would talk to me they pretended like I wasn't there," Hughes said of his stand against the church's blood policy.

"That's what happens a lot of time with Jehovah's Witnesses that go up against the church. They've lost everybody and they're all alone, and I was all alone."  

"I've been told by strangers that my daughters are married and have children."




Cults: How Mind Control Enslaves, and How to Help People Break Free

Sunday, November 20th 2016 at 11:00 am - 12:30 pm

Center for Inquiry-Los Angeles, 4773 Hollywood Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90027

To understand what is a cult and to explain its impact, educator and therapist Rachel Bernstein will bring her experience and skills to this lecture following her workshop at the Center on Oct. 15-16. She also will discuss mind control, its undue influence, and the techniques of persuasion that are used almost always in cults and controlling relationships. In addition, Bernstein will explore effects of cult involvement and psychological manipulation. Anyone who has been in a cult will learn how to undo the effects of mind control, and those who know someone in a cult who has probably been told to cut themselves off from them will find out how to successfully and safely reconnect with them.

Rachel Bernstein
As a licensed therapist, Bernstein has been working with former cult members and their families for 25 years. She has been the clinician at the Cult Clinic in Los Angeles and at the Cult Hotline and Clinic in Manhattan. She has run numerous support groups for former cult members and their families and has spoken at many conferences worldwide. Bernstein has appeared on TV on CNN, National Geographic, E Entertainment, and Larry King on numerous occasions. She now works with a variety of clients, including those who have been involved in cults, in her private practice in Encino and runs a former cult member support group online and in her office.

NOTE: A different speaker will be announced for Costa Mesa.


Public: $8
Students: $4
Planet Level Members: FREE


Leah Remini Scientology exposé coming to TV in November

October 28, 2016


Global News


TV star Leah Remini may have left Scientology, but she’s not done talking about it.

Remini has been busy working on Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, an eight-episode docuseries about the religion and its effects on her life. It premieres November 29 at 10 p.m. ET on A&E.

The actress left the church in 2013 after being a member since childhood, and she claims the purpose of the series is to give a voice to others who’ve fled the church and have allegedly been harassed because of it.

“For too long, this multi-billion-dollar organization bullied victims and journalists to prevent the truth from being told. It is my hope that we shed light on information that makes the world aware of what is really going on and encourages others to speak up,” Remini said in a statement released by A&E. “Even though I had been a member of the church for a long time, I was stunned by some of the things I learned. There is a lot more to this story than anyone knows, and this series is breaking ground in bringing that information to light.”

“This series is about sharing the truth about Scientology,” she continued.


“Truth born out of very personal experiences… it is my hope that we shed light on information that makes the world aware of what is really going on, and encourages others to speak up so the abuses can be ended forever.”

In 2015, Remini, 46, released a memoir titled Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology, which includes several bombshell allegations about the church and its celebrity members, and gave a unique look at Tom Cruise’s wedding to Katie Holmes. (You can learn more about Remini’s claims in the video, below.)

The Church of Scientology, for its part, released a statement about Remini (it’s unclear when, since there is no date on it) calling her activities “pathetic,” “bitter” and “angry.” The church also says she is a “spoiled entitled diva.”

“The real story is that [Remini] desperately tried to remain a Scientologist in 2013, knowing full well she was on the verge of being expelled for refusing to abide by the high level of ethics and decency Scientologists are expected to maintain,” the statement reads, in part.

“Her repeated ethical lapses and callous treatment of others led to an ecclesiastical review which resulted in her being expelled. She now regurgitates the tired myths the Church has repeatedly debunked, circulated by the same tiny clique of expelled former staffers bitter at having lost the positions they enjoyed before their malfeasance and unethical conduct were uncovered. Ms. Remini is now joined at the hip with this collection of deadbeats, admitted liars, self-admitted perjurers, wife beaters and worse.”




Bikram Yoga Creator Loses It When Asked About Sexual Assault Allegations

“I picked them from the trash and gave them life,” he said of his accusers.

Jenavieve Hatch  Associate Women’s Editor, The Huffington Post


The Huffington Post


Would you spend a million dollars for a drop of this man’s sperm? He thinks so! 


More than a dozen women have accused beloved yoga guru Bikram Choudhury of sexual assault. He has fervently denied the accusations and was recently profiled for a new feature on HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.”

Sports journalist Andrea Kremer interviewed the yogi, as well as three of his accusers. She spent time speaking to Choudhury about the practice of yoga, and his teaching style. But when Kremer asked the guru about the sexual assault allegations that have been levied against him, the interview took a turn.

Choudhury has consistently denied the allegations. During the interview, he referred to the women who have made accusations against him as “trash” and “psychopaths.” He also bragged about how effortless it would be to have sexual relationships with women considering his fame and renown. 

“Why would I have to harass women?” he asked Kremer. “People spend one million dollars for a drop of my sperm.”

(Watch a clip from the “Real Sports” episode below.)

Much of the “Real Sports” segment emphasized the cult-like following that Choudhury has gathered. As a yoga phenom who charges upwards of $12,000 for his yoga teacher training, he’s amassed a huge amount of wealth. And hundreds of Bikram yoga studios all over the world bear his name. But judging from the interview he did with Kremer, he’s also amassed a huge ego. (His style of speaking about himself has even led to comparisons with Donald Trump.)

“Nobody on this earth can explain, except me,” he’s shown saying at one of the teaching trainings, footage of which is included in the “Real Sports” segment.

Kremer reported that upon arrival at the 9-week long program, students receive a welcome packet which says things like: “Your focus should be listening to Bikram, and doing what you’re told...the most important thing is to listen to Bikram.” Choudhury also claimed during his interview with Kremer that he knows “billions times” more about the human body than doctors, and that he’s cured serious health problems like Parkinson’s disease and AIDS. 

The women who have accused Choudhury of sexual assault believe that this combination of celebrity, power, ego and wealth have put him in the perfect position to take advantage of young women. 

“He knew that he was in a position of power, and he manipulated me and took advantage of it,” one woman, Jill Lawler, told Kremer. “He was my guru. I really, really loved him.”

The men and women enrolled in these teacher trainings are required to listen to a lecture by Choudhury after 14 hours of intense physical training. Students also aren’t allowed to have any green clothing or accessories because it “offends” him, and many have reported being told that they’re fat, and having their diet controlled or mocked by Choudhury. 

“I think it was a tactic of his to control us,” Lawler said. 

Lawler was 18 when she met Choudhury, and she spent her entire college fund to attend the guru’s yoga teacher training. She says over the course of the program she was sexually assaulted multiple times by the yogi. Lawler left the training shortly after the assaults occurred. 

Maggie Genthner, a young woman in the same teacher training program as Lawler, also says she was raped by Choudhury, who frequently depends on having an “attendant.” He picked Genthner to replace Lawler after she left, and allegedly raped her shortly thereafter. 

Genthner described the horrific details of her rape to Kremer: “He pulled me on the bed, I was screaming ‘No, please stop, don’t do this.’ He starts calling me an ‘idiot’ over and over again. And then...he penetrates me.”

Another woman, Sarah Baughn, claims that Choudhury attempted to sexually assault her in 2008, but she managed to escape. Baughn filed a lawsuit against him in Los Angeles in 2013 ― the first of his accusers to do so. The Los Angeles District Attorney ultimately declined to prosecute because there were no witnesses, and there was not enough physical evidence. 

When Kremer asked Choudhury directly if he sexually assaulted Baughn, he said, “Of course not. I would never even piss on her face...she’s a psychopath.”

The “Real Sports” segment concludes with Choudhury abruptly ending the interview, telling Kremer: “You are nothing but piece of shit psychopaths. Go home. This is over.”

According to Kremer, Choudhury has not been seen in the United States since January 2016 and is reportedly in Thailand running another teaching training.

Lawler expressed concern that the guru might have access to more vulnerable young women: “I feel worried about any of the girls who are gonna go there.”



'Cult leader', 52, who had two children with 14-year-old girl after her Amish parents gave her to him as a 'gift' is charged with abusing her FIVE younger sisters who thought he was a 'prophet from God'


A self-styled cult leader raped six sisters aged between eight and 18 for years after brainwashing them into thinking they were his wives and that he was a prophet from God, prosecutors allege. 

Lee Kaplan is facing a slew of child sex offences for taking the girls off the hands of their Amish parents and keeping them in his own house in Feastverville, Pennsylvania. 

He was arrested in June after the eldest sister, now 18, told police she had given birth to two of his children. 

Her parents, Daniel and Savilla Stoltzfus were also arrested. It was claimed they had given Kaplan their daughter to buy their way out of money they owed him. 

All of the girls were found cowering in chicken coops and in the basement of his home in June. 

They are thought to have been being home-schooled by Kaplan and were all dressed in Amish clothing when police found them.   

On Monday, Bucks County District Attorney Matthew Weintraub brought fresh charges against Kaplan after interviewing the other sisters. 

They told him how Kaplan brainwashed all six of them into thinking they were his wives and how he anally raped them both at his house and at their parents' home. 

He had a bedroom in their family home where he slept with one of the girls while he was naked and trained the girls into giving him the affectionate nickname 'Lave'. 

The sisters told police how she alongside her five other sisters all considered themselves his wives. 

'Sister victim two's understanding of how this came about was that Kaplan felt that it was in the children's best interests to become his wives.

'Kaplan would have "dreams" about them becoming his wives and he stated that this was what God wanted,' his most recent charge sheet said. 

The girls were taken from their parents' home to live with Kaplan as repayment for financial help he had given the family at different times and ages. 

Their mother lived with them at one point in Kaplan's home too. The eldest is believed to have suffered the longest stint of abuse.

She began living with him when she was ten and is now 18. During those eight years he impregnated her twice. She now has two children with him who are aged three and six. 

Daniel and Savilla Stoltzfus, the girls' parents, were arrested in June for felony child endangerment when the only charges Kaplan faced were against their eldest daughter

The pair are first believed to have had sex when she was 12 but she had earlier slept with him in a bedroom he kept in her parents' home when she was 10. 

'Kaplan would frequently be naked with her in his bed and he would rub his genitalia, which he called his d***, on her vagina until "wet stuff" came out,' the affidavit listing his charges read. 

He began anally raping her when she was 13, she said and performed oral sex on her when she was 10.  

Kaplan (above at his preliminary hearing in August for the charges against the first sister) told the girls he was a prophet from God, police said 

The second oldest girl is now 17. She was promised to Kaplan in marriage by her parents when she was 'seven or eight' but he did not begin abusing her until she was 14 - after the pair had 'married', police said. 

'She explained that "consummation" was accomplished by Kaplan penetrating her "front hole" with his "private part". 

He went on to have sex with her 'once a month' for three years, it added.  

The other sisters range in age from 15 to eight. Some suffered at his hands from the age of six, said police.

The fourth sister, who is now 13, said she was first abused by him when she was 10.  

He referred to her vagina as her 'birth hole' and to his semen as his 'seed', she told police. He also began asking her to massage his penis when she was 10, she said. 

The youngest victim, who is eight, said he took her into his bedroom after her 8th birthday. She referred to his penis as his 'nakedness' in a police interview and said he had told her that he was putting it into 'the hole where poop comes out'.  

Five other children were found living at Kaplan's home but are not involved in the case. Two of them are the children he fathered with the eldest sister.

Most of the sisters still think affectionately of their captor, said Weintraub on Monday as he deplored the allegations as 'unspeakable'. 

'The young ladies probably still share some feelings for this man because he has had them at his beck and call for many years. 

'What we've hopefully managed to do is gain their trust and put an end to his reign of terror. 

'These are unspeakable acts. They will be vigorously prosecuted to the most serious extent that the law allows,' he added.  

The girls' parents are as yet not facing any additional charges, given their original charge of endangering children applied to all of the youngsters in their care. 

All of the children have been removed from Kaplan's home and are still living together in a safe house. 

Kaplan's bail was raised from $1million ten per cent to $1million cash.  If convicted of all the charges he faces, he will die in prison. 

'It saddens me and it sickens me. This man obviously groomed these children for a long time and for an explicit purpose. 

'If we're successful, he's going to spend the rest of his life in prison,' Weintraub concluded. 

In August, members of the Amish community attended Kaplan's preliminary hearing en masse.

He said nothing during the proceedings except to interject that the 18-year-old sister, who was giving evidence, would not know what the word chaperon meant. 


Why 'Saint Death' isn't a saint, and isn't even really Catholic

Mary Rezac
October 31, 2016

BROWNSVILLE, Texas - They call her Santa Muerte (‘Holy Death’ or ‘Saint Death’), but she’s no saint.


The skeletal female figure has a growing devotion in Mexico, Central America, and some places in the United States, but don’t be fooled by the Mary-like veil or the holy-sounding name.

She’s not a recognized saint by the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, in 2013, a Vatican official condemned devotion to her, equating it to “the celebration of devastation and of hell.”

“It’s not every day that a folk saint is actually condemned at the highest levels of the Vatican,” Andrew Chesnut, a Santa Muerte expert who has been studying the devotion for eight years, told CNA.

Chesnut is the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint,” the only English academic book to date on the subject.

Despite her condemnation from on high, Santa Muerte remains increasingly popular among criminals, drug lords and those on the fringe of society, as well as cultural Catholics who maybe don’t know (or care) that she is condemned by the Church.

“She’s basically the poster girl of narco-satanic spirituality,” Chesnut said.

According to Chesnut’s estimates, Santa Muerte is the fastest growing religious movement in the Americas - and it’s all happened within the past 10-15 years.

“She was unknown to 99 percent of Mexicans before 2001, when she went public. Now I estimate there’s some 10-12 million devotees, mostly in Mexico, but also significant numbers in the United States and Central America,” he said.

The roots of Santa Muerte

Although she has recently exploded in popularity, Santa Muerte has been referenced in Mexican culture since Spanish colonial times, when Catholic colonizers, looking to evangelize the native people of Mexico, brought over female Grim Reaper figures as a representation of death, Chesnut said.

But the Mayan and Aztec cultures already had death deities, and so the female skeletal figure became adopted into the culture as a kind of hybrid death saint.

She’s also mentioned twice in the historical records of the Inquisition, when Spanish Catholic inquisitors found and destroyed a shrine to Santa Muerte in Central Mexico. After that, Santa Muerte disappeared from historical records for more than a century, only to resurface, in a relatively minor way, in the 1940s.

“From the 1940s to 1980s, researchers exclusively report Santa Muerte (being invoked) for love miracles,” Chesnut said, such as women asking the folk saint to bring back their cheating husbands.

She then faded into obscurity for a few more decades, until the drug wars brought her roaring back.

What’s the appeal of a saint of death?

Part of the attraction to Santa Muerte, as several sources familiar with the devotion explained, is that she is seen as a non-judgemental saint that can be invoked for some not-so-holy petitions.

“If somebody is going to be doing something illegal, and they want to be protected from the law enforcement, they feel awkward asking God to protect them,” explained Father Andres Gutierrez, the pastor of St. Helen parish in Rio Hondo, Texas.

“So they promise something to Santa Muerte in exchange for being protected from the law.”

Devotees also feel comfortable going to her for favors of vengeance - something they would never ask of God or a canonized saint, Chesnut said.

“I think this non-judgemental saint who’s going to accept me as I am is appealing,” Chesnut said, particularly to criminals or to people who don’t feel completely accepted within the Mexican Catholic or Evangelical churches.

The cultural Catholicism of Mexico and the drug wars of the past decade also made for the perfect storm for Santa Muerte to catch on, Chesnut explained. Even Mexicans who didn’t grow up going to Mass every Sunday still have a basic idea of what Catholicism entails - Mass and Saints and prayers like the rosary, all things that have been hi-jacked and adapted by the Santa Muerte movement.

“You can almost see some of it as kind of an extreme heretical form of folk Catholicism,” he said. “In fact, I can say Santa Muerte could only have arisen from a Catholic environment.”

This, coupled with the fact that Mexican Catholics are suddenly much more familiar with death, with the recent drug wars having left anywhere from 60,000 - 120,000 Mexicans dead - makes a saint of death that much more intriguing.

“Paradoxically, a lot of devotees who feel like death could be just around the corner - maybe they’re narcos, maybe they work in the street, maybe they’re security guards who might be gunned down - they ask Santa Muerte for protection.”

Why she’s no saint

Her familiarity and appeal is actually part of the danger of this devotion, Gutierrez said.

“(Santa Muerte) is literally a demon with another name,” he said. “That’s what it is.”

In his own ministry, Gutierrez said he has witnessed people who “suffer greatly” following a devotion to the folk saint.

Father Gary Thomas, a Vatican-trained exorcist for the Diocese of San Jose, told CNA that he has also prayed with people who have had demonic trouble after praying to Santa Muerte.

“I have had a number of people who have come to me as users of this practice and found themselves tied to a demon or demonic tribe,” he said.

Gutierrez noted that while Catholics who attend Mass and the sacraments on a regular basis tend to understand this about Santa Muerte, those in danger are the cultural Catholics who aren’t intentionally engaging in something harmful, but could be opening the door to spiritual harm nonetheless.

Elizabeth Beltran is the parish secretary at Cristo Rey Church, a predominantly Latino Catholic parish in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Beltran, who grew up in Mexico and whose family is still in Mexico, said she started noticing Santa Muerte about 15-20 years ago, but she hasn’t yet noticed the presence of the devotion in the United States.

Besides narcos and criminals, the folk saint also appeals to poor, cultural Mexican Catholics or those who are simply looking for something to believe in, Beltran said.

“People who don’t know their faith very well, it’s very easy to convince them” to pray to Santa Muerte, she said. It’s common practice in Mexico for people to mix superstitious practices with Catholic prayers like the Our Father or the Hail Mary, in order to gain trust in the Catholic culture.

Besides her demonic ties, she’s also a perversion of what the practice of praying to saints is all about, said Father Ryan Kaup, a priest with Cristo Rey parish.

“What we venerate as saints are real people who have chosen this life to follow the will of our Lord and have done great things with their lives, and now they’re in heaven forever, and so that’s why we ask for their intercession,” Fr. Kaup said.

“So taking this devotion and this practice that we have of asking for this saint’s intercession and twisting it in such a way as to invoke this glorified image of death is really a distortion of what we believe is true intercession and truly the power of the saints.”

Because of her growing popularity in the United States, Gutierrez said he is hoping that bishops and Catholic leaders in the U.S. become more aware of the danger of the Santa Muerte devotion and start condemning it publicly.

“I would love to hear something on a national level, from the U.S. conference of Catholic bishops or from local bishops speaking about it publicly,” he said. “I think that would be one way to really call it to attention.”

Thomas added that honoring a saint of death is a corruption and distortion of what Christians believe about Jesus, who came to give us eternal life.

“‘Saint Death’ is an oxymoron. God is a God of the living, not the dead.”


Witches of America: how I became immersed in a growing movement

A book and film that were first intended as a snapshot of the pagan religious movement today became, equally, a memoir of my own spiritual seeking Alex Mar

Alex Mar
The Guardian
October 29, 2016

On a Sunday night in 2012, some 400 people were packed, barefoot, into the darkened corporate ballroom of the Double Tree hotel near the San Jose airport, listening to the sounds of heavy drumming. The hotel was flooded with about 2,000 American witches, as it is one weekend a year, and nearly a quarter of them – from teenagers to septuagenarians – were immersed in a ceremony led by Morpheus Ravenna, a rising pagan priestess. They had been called, with ceremonial daggers and invocations, to form a consecrated circle. Under dimmed lights, there had been full-voiced chanting as the witches “raised power” to welcome their deity into the carpeted space.

The ritual was a devotional to the Morrigan, the heavyweight Celtic goddess of war, prophecy and self-transformation. In the center of the circle, surrounded by her ritual crew, stood Morpheus, with all eyes on her.

Dressed in black, in a leather corset and a long skirt slit up each side, she wore her hair in elaborate, heavy braids that hung to her waist. She stalked the circle’s edge, flapping the vulture wings she’d strapped to her arms and staring into the crowd. Her slender body doubled over, as if suddenly heavy, and began bobbing up and down as if something was bubbling up inside her.

The sight of a possession, for those who’d never witnessed one, was alien, impressive. After what felt like a long time, she raised her head up and in a growling voice not her own, announced that she was Morrigu! Badb Catha! The roomful of witches circled closer, tightening around her, and a fellow priestess lifted a heavy sword above our heads: she directed us to take a vow. “But only if it’s one you can keep. Don’t take it lightly.”

As Morpheus (or the goddess she was channeling) continued heaving, breathing hard, hundreds of people crowded in, taking turns to raise their hand up and touch the tip of the blade.

I was one of them.

It all started three years earlier, when I set out to make a documentary about a handful of fringe religious communities around the country. The idea stemmed from a longtime fascination with how and why people rally around belief systems, and the ceremonies that hold those systems in place.

It was also more personal than that. I was born and raised in New York City, but my roots are more exotic: between my Cuban Catholic mother and my Greek Orthodox father, family religion involved the lushest, most high-drama strains of Christianity. The elaborate clerical robes, the incense and tiers of prayer candles, the stories of the martyrs cut into stained glass, the barely decipherable chants – as a child, these were embedded in my brain. To this day, despite my liberal feminist politics, I still imagine the world as overseen by a handsome, bearded young white man.

Once I was old enough to think for myself, I broke with the church on issues of sexuality, marriage, the right to choose and the concept of “sin”; I also couldn’t swallow the thin reasoning behind excluding women from the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox priesthoods. At the same time, however, I was haunted by the memory of high mass, the sense that there are mysteries in the universe. When I learned that there was a living, growing American witchcraft movement – one that is radically inclusive, that views women as equals to men, and in which God is just as likely to be female – I was instantly curious.

During the six years of immersion that ensued, I made a documentary about modern witchcraft, and eventually dove even deeper to write a book, Witches of America. In the process, I would come to understand a lot more about the American witchcraft movement.

Since the 1960s, the “pagan” movement – what most people are referring to when they talk about American witchcraft today – has grown into a hard-to-dismiss new religious movement. In this country alone, a responsible estimate places the number of self-identified witches (typically called pagan priests and priestesses) at about one million – comparable to those of Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In the past, it may have been tempting to dismiss this community as Earth-loving crystal collectors or velvet-wearing goths. In fact, the dozens of esoteric but related traditions share a spiritual core: they are polytheistic, worship nature and hold that female and male forces have equal weight in the universe. Pagans believe that the divine can be found all around us and that we can communicate regularly with the dead and the gods without a go-between. They don’t believe in heaven or hell; many subscribe to some version of reincarnation, or a next world called the Summerland. Nor is there a concept of “shame”, but an idea of karma: do what you want, as long as you don’t harm others.

Pagan traditions, however alien on the surface, contain elements that are universal: priesthood; rituals and holidays to mark the seasons and the life cycle; personal prayer (in this case, spellcasting and offerings to the gods). Major pagan holidays have already bled into popular culture: Beltane, the fertility celebration, is known as May Day; Samhain, the time of (literal) communion with the dead, as Halloween.

And perhaps the most radical-seeming practices, from the perspective of Christian America, are still recognizable to Hindus (polytheism) and followers of African diaspora religions (spirit possession, as in Morpheus’s devotional to the Morrigan).

At the same time, some typical pagan practices are in line – at least on the surface – with what Hollywood has taught us about witchcraft: witches do gather in a circle when performing rituals, often at night, out in nature; they do chant, sometimes in ancient (or ancient-sounding) languages; they use wands and consecrated daggers and swords and chalices.

In casting the documentary, I traveled the country for months, from Tennessee to Montana to the Bay Area. There are practicing pagans in every state, in cities and suburbs and small towns, ranging from schoolteachers to tech entrepreneurs to the cashier at your local Whole Foods.

On one of these dizzying trips, I met Morpheus: at the time, she worked a day job for a federal environmental agency, driving around in her truck to inspect Santa Clara County ranches in khakis and a hoodie. But she had another life: she and her then husband oversaw what they called Stone City, one of the only major pagan sanctuaries in the Bay Area.

There, an hour’s drive off the grid, stood 100 acres of tough-to-tread land completely dedicated to witchcraft. High up on a plateau shielded by trees, they built a circle of enormous vertical stones, huge slabs they’d buried in the ground to rise six feet tall – their very own henge. Ceremonies inside the circle, attended over the years by hundreds of pagans, had involved daggers and cloaks and torches, and California academics and carpenters and nuclear physicists chanting to the moon or perhaps speaking in tongues, invoking some god or goddess until, when it became too late to drive home, the worshippers gathered around a fire, drank whiskey, and wandered off to their tents.

I saw that henge for the first time after dinner with Morpheus and her husband in their double-wide trailer: up the hillside, in the moonlight, there it was. An extraordinary sight.

Over the course of several months, my tiny crew and I stayed at Stone City many times – for Beltane, or Samhain, or just to get a sense of the rhythm of their intensely untraditional lives – and my relationship with Morpheus began to feel more like a friendship. She could be intimidating to witness in ritual, but in her everyday existence, maybe frying an egg in the kitchen or running an errand for her teenage stepdaughter, she was laid-back, quick to laugh, wholly unpretentious. By coincidence, we were the same age (both recently turned 30), and she was easy to talk to, perfectly comfortable with my own skepticism and my probing questions.

Morpheus had found her religion as a nature-loving child of open-minded west coast parents: she grew up surrounded by redwoods, with a mother intrigued by eastern mysticism. But pagans, male and female, find the “Craft” in many ways – during a collegiate rebellion against an evangelical upbringing, as a teenager who happened to wander into his local occult bookstore, as a devout Catholic woman frustrated by the limitations of her church (there are plenty of Baptists and “recovering Catholics” in the pagan community). And I think Morpheus was aware of how personal my own interest in witchcraft was becoming.

Once filming was over, that was just what I knew I had to confront: my own deep-seated curiosity. I returned to California – this time with a new excuse: I had a book to write. Witches of America was first intended as a snapshot of the pagan movement today – but it quickly became, equally, a memoir of my own spiritual seeking.

Throughout my life, most of my friends have been fashionable atheists of the creative classes, but it was becoming clearer to me that this does not exempt anyone from the very human need for meaning. As someone with a strong “religious impulse” but without a practice to relate to, I’d long been envious of people whose lives are structured around a clear system of belief. It seems like a tremendous relief, to be able to wake up everyday with a shared sense of purpose versus the low-level existential pain of living without something to believe in, a religious tradition to guide and ground you.

Within months of starting my research, I made a decision: I would study the Craft myself. Many witches practice on their own, as “solitaries”, but many also regularly practice magic with a group, or “coven”. They gather, whether out in nature or in each other’s homes, for the annual holidays and solstices, perhaps once a month (according to the position of the moon), or when a specific spell is needed – maybe to heal or help a member of the coven or their family.

For me, Morpheus recommended a priestess in Massachusetts of the same specific witchcraft tradition in which she had trained – a smaller, particularly intense and ecstatic branch of the Craft known as Feri.

Understanding that most students of Feri train for about five years before being initiated (if they last that long), I began studying with my teacher long-distance from New York, through phone calls and long emails. (In the internet era of witchcraft, this isn’t that uncommon.) I knew I’d “circle” in person with the coven when we gathered in a few months, coming together from many parts of the country for Samhain – the time of year (right now, actually) when they say the boundary between this world and the next is thinnest.

Soon, I moved to New Orleans, and there, as I continued my Feri lessons, I also began working with an occult society: Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), an international group to which the legendary (and notorious) magician Aleister Crowley once belonged. The OTO crew there was unusually young and rigorous, and they held their ceremonies in a former Christian church they’d recently converted into an ornate temple.

My life was becoming headier, populated by Americans who believe in the practice of magic. Taking part in the OTO occult mass in that grand room made me feel drunk; its intricate costumes, chalices and daggers, and thick incense reminded me of the Eastern Orthodox mass that inspired it – an offering-up of the sacrament by those who don’t believe in sin.

When the next Samhain arrived, I was finally able to circle with the coven – in, of all places, a castle in New Hampshire. There, for three days and nights, about 30 of us took part in barely-lit rituals to commune with the dead. During one of those nights, deep into a ceremony that lasted over three hours, I came very close, I thought, to an ancestor I’d never met before. I thought we had an encounter, somewhere in that dark place, across who knows how many centuries, but I knew I would never have proof of it.

Within the pagan community, the reaction to Witches of America has been deeply divided. I have been called a lot of names online, threatened with hexes, and more. (My mother, last fall: “Can you imagine if you’d chosen to write about Isis?”) I could say a lot about this, but I’ll keep it simple here and state what should have been obvious to me all along: examining any form of faith, any religious movement, no matter how liberal, is fraught and intensely sensitive.

I should have known that there would be many pagans who wanted to see another version of their practice represented, who were unhappy to have witchcraft depicted by a novice and occasional skeptic, or who, when confronted with a book about the Craft written for the mainstream, realized they weren’t interested in being understood by the “normal” folks after all.

At the same time, I also received many messages, from readers of a range of beliefs – pagans, Catholics, atheists – who were excited to see contemporary witchcraft practice depicted for a larger audience. I’ve heard from older, 1960s-era practitioners; new generation hipster witches from Brooklyn; gay men raised in evangelical households who’d been searching for a more inclusive, sex-positive form of spirituality.

But the majority of notes I’ve gotten have been from readers attracted to what I call the “gray zone” of belief, that combination of spiritual longing and skepticism, openly expressed. Many found relief in seeing that very human amalgam of curiosity and confusion mapped out on the page.

In particular, I remember one young bookstore manager who approached me quietly after a reading to share that he’d spent eight years in a Catholic seminary before losing his faith and dropping out; this book about witchcraft, surprisingly, had allowed him to travel back to that time and to think about what might still be missing from his life.

I guess I’m not surprised: we like to imagine ourselves a country founded on clarity of vision and faith – originally the Christian faith, of course. Throughout our history, it hasn’t been considered very “American” to struggle spiritually, to anticipate but never receive a clear calling. The Oprah-friendly tale of self-transformation- through-revelation is easily one of the most popular forms of memoir in American literature, and that can be deeply alienating to those of us who live in a constant state of searching, uncertain if we will ever find a label for the system that helps us get by.

When I’m asked today for a simple description of what I believe in, I do not have an easier answer than when I set out. I still can’t claim a spiritual category into which I fit neatly, a community that makes me complete, and I may never find one. But during my time within the pagan community I learned this: the search for meaning is personal – so personal, it may be indecipherable to others.

It can lead you far away from the familiar, and from familiar truths. But each of us has the right to traverse that distance.


Mom who cited religious freedom pleads guilty

The Indianapolis Star

Vic Ryckaert , vic.ryckaert@indystar.com

October 28, 2016


A mother who cited religious freedom as a defense for beating her son with a coat hanger will serve a year on probation.

After a doctor found 36 bruises on her 7-year-old son, Khin Par Thaing claimed her discipline method came straight from her evangelical Christian beliefs.

Marion Superior Judge Kurt Eisgruber accepted a plea agreement Friday in which Thaing admitted she committed battery when she struck her son in February.

While Thaing pleaded guilty to felony battery, the agreement directed the judge to reduce it to a misdemeanor.

In exchange, prosecutors dismissed a neglect charge and a more serious charge of felony battery.

Thaing, 30, came to court with her attorney and several supporters. The Burmese refugee was assisted by an interpreter and gave short, yes-or-no answers throughout the hearing, which lasted 15 minutes.

Thaing and her lawyer, Greg Bowes, declined comment Friday. In court records, Thaing cited  Scripture as a defense against the charges.

"Do not withhold discipline from a child," Thaing said in court documents. "If you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol."

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, enacted in 2015, says the government cannot intrude on a person's religious liberty unless it can prove a compelling interest in imposing that burden, and can do so in the least restrictive way.

The beating occurred Feb. 3, when Thaing said she stopped her son from dangerous behavior that would have seriously harmed his 3-year-old sister.

Thaing, according to the documents, hit both children with a plastic coat hanger before telling them to kneel and pray for God's mercy.

"I was worried for my son's salvation with God after he dies," Thaing said in court documents. "I decided to punish my son to prevent him from hurting my daughter and to help him learn how to behave as God would want him to."

Gov. Mike Pence signed the controversial religious freedom law in the spring of 2015, more than a year before Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump chose him as his running mate.

This isn't the only time religious freedom has been used in court.

The First Church of Cannabis in Indianapolis is claiming religious freedom in a lawsuit seeking to win the right to smoke marijuana during worship services.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana cited the law on behalf of a Boone County Jail inmate who was denied meals that conformed to his Muslim faith. The  ACLU dropped the federal lawsuit earlier this month after the Boone County Sheriff's Office gave inmates an option for a halal meal plan.

Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry has said he expects more criminal defendants will cite religion in their defense, which means more deputy prosecutors and courts will have to devote time and resources to arguing the merits of the claim.

The criminal case against Thaing was complicated by more than her religious rights. She cited cultural differences as part of her defense, noting that her family had been granted asylum from political and religious persecution in Burma.

Another wrinkle in the case, legal experts say, is that an Indiana Supreme Court decision gives parents the right to punish their children with cords or belts, and possibly coat hangers.




Marcelo Crivella: Brazilian evangelist becomes Rio Mayor

·        BBC News

·        31 October 2016

A Brazilian evangelical pastor, Marcelo Crivella, has been elected mayor of Rio de Janeiro in the second round of municipal elections.

He won easily, beating left-wing candidate Marcelo Freixo by a margin of nearly 20 percentage points.

Mr Crivella has promised to bring law and order and basic sanitation to Rio's poorer neighbourhoods.

His victory shows the growing influence of evangelical politicians amid voter anger over a corruption scandal.

Marcelo Crivella is a bishop in the giant Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, founded by his billionaire uncle, Edir Macedo - the main Pentacostal denomination in Brazil.

Although Brazil is the largest Roman Catholic country in the world, the growing evangelical community now accounts for a fifth of the population.

Voter anger

During campaigning the 59-year-old faced uproar over comments made in a 1999 book where he described homosexuality as evil and the Roman Catholic church as demonic.

But Mr Crivella won easily, successfully distancing himself from the comments and promising to govern for Rio's residents, not the influential church from which he comes.

Observers say his victory was also helped by voter anger over a second year of economic recession and the fallout from a huge corruption scandal involving many members of the former government of the left-wing Workers Party.

The evangelical message has taken root largely among the poor in Brazil who before would have voted on left-wing lines.

Several high profile cases of evangelical leaders caught up in corruption allegations, including the former leader of the lower house of Congress Eduardo Cunha, have yet to damage the movement.

Elsewhere in Brazil's biggest city Sao Paulo, voters ousted incumbent mayor Fernando Haddad, once considered a rising star of the governing Workers Party, and replacing him with Joao Doria, a wealthy conservative businessman.