MEXICO CITY, Mexico (AP) — Praying to a statue of the Grim Reaper and collecting the faithful across the country, a small religious sect that worships death is now fighting the Mexican government for recognition.
The church, an unofficial offshoot of Roman Catholicism, was registered as a religious group in 2003, allowing it to legally raise money and own property.
But on Tuesday, the Mexican government said it was considering withdrawing official recognition of the church after an excommunicated member accused the cult of forcing its members to worship death and failing to stick to its bylaws.
David Romo Guillen, the church’s archbishop, denied the claims Wednesday at the group’s headquarters in a rough Mexico City neighborhood.
“The church continues to be run the same. They’re just doing this because they want us to get rid of la Santa Muerte,” or Saint Death, said Guillen. “We won’t abandon our faith.”
As he spoke, devotees prayed before altars and crucifixes set up at the Traditional Mex-USA Church, a large house turned into the group’s only national sanctuary.
Faithful regard La Santa Muerte as an angel or saint who only kills based on God’s orders. Altars and shrines are common throughout the country.
Guillen said he plans to fight the government because he doesn’t believe it should interfere with the church’s internal affairs.
“We’re not going to allow our rights as citizens to be stepped on,” he said. “This is a rogue government. They’re acting like we’re in the inquisition.”
Following a religious uprising in the 1920s, Mexico enacted anti-clerical laws that banned religious garb in public and strictly limited the rights of churches.
Those laws were relaxed in the 1990s; religous groups are now required to register with the government, but are granted greater rights.
The Roman Catholic Church speaks out against worshipping La Santa Muerte, linking it to black magic, Satanism and cults. Many of the church’s members are thieves and prostitutes who attend the twice daily Masses.
Guillen said these are just stigmas the Roman Catholic Church uses to scare people.
“They’re scared because our followers and our popularity is growing,” Guillen said.