Officials and followers of a Mexican-based evangelical church are defending and praying for its leader after he was arrested this week on human trafficking, rape and child pornography charges.
Naasón Joaquín García, leader or “Apostle” of the Guadalajara-based church La Luz del Mundo – Light of the World – was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport on Monday.
Three women also affiliated with La Luz del Mundo – Alondra Ocampo, Azalea Rangel Melendez and Susana Medina Oaxaca – also face charges. They had been under investigation since 2018 after California authorities received a tip via an online clergy abuse complaint form.
The accused are alleged to have committed 26 offenses in Los Angeles county between 2015 and 2018.
García, who is being held on US $50 million bail, as well as Ocampo and Medina appeared in a Los Angeles courtroom yesterday. Rangel failed to appear.
In a graphic criminal complaint filed Tuesday, prosecutors allege that García is a sexual predator and that the three women helped procure young girls for the pleasure of the man known by church members as “the Apostle of Jesus Christ.”
In one incident described in the complaint, Ocampo is alleged to have called a girl to García’s home and ordered her to remove her clothes and serve him coffee in his office.
When the girl entered his office, García allegedly kissed her on the lips and touched her in intimate locations. He is accused of sexually abusing three girls and one woman, according to the criminal complaint.
Prosecutors also allege that Ocampo took photographs of three naked girls, telling them that they were for “the servant of God” – García.
Just hours after the 50-year-old leader was detained, La Luz del Mundo bishops urged church members to start praying for their leader, and not stop.
The Los Angeles Times reported that the doors of La Luz del Mundo church in East LA, where García was once a pastor, have been left open overnight so the devout can pray for their leader around the clock.
“We’re united in prayer,” said Jack Freeman, a minister who has been with the church for almost three decades.
“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.”
At the church’s flagship temple in Guadalajara, scores of congregants have been praying for García, who has led services there during the past four and a half years. A minister leading a service yesterday told the congregation to have faith that their leader will return soon.
Jesus Christ himself and his disciples also faced persecution, he said.
Church members in California told the Times that García is a target of a smear campaign designed to bring him down, as occurred with his deceased father and former church leader, Samuel Joaquin Flores, who was also the subject of child sex abuse allegations but never faced charges.
“He is a man of God,” said David Salazar. “It’s not true . . . It’s just meant to discredit him.”
Another church member, Francisco Lucas, said: “This is a living church, we are a spiritual church. We believe in justice. We are praying for God to do justice.”
Silem García, a spokesman for La Luz del Mundo, told reporters in Mexico City that the church and its congregants consider the accusations to be “defamatory” and false.
“We believe firmly in the innocence of the Apostle of Jesus Christ,” he said.
Ashley García, who is also a La Luz del Mundo spokesman, said in East Los Angeles that the church is confident that the legal system will find García innocent.
“The Apostle of Jesus Christ has always adhered to the law. . .He is the mouthpiece for God,” he said.
Founded in Mexico in 1926 by García’s grandfather, La Luz del Mundo has spread to more than 50 countries and has more than one million members.
The church – which doesn’t celebrate Christmas or Easter, segregates sexes during services, prohibits alcohol and doesn’t allow women to hold leadership positions – has been the subject of controversy for decades and described by critics as a cult that preys on the poor.
Andrew Chesnut, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the church is “too large to be considered a cult” but has been run as a “cult of personality.”
“García took on godlike roles, saying he couldn’t be judged, that he was like a king.”