A tragedy where seven people died during exorcisms performed by an evangelical sect is leading to a broad provision targeting “cults” in general.
by Massimo Introvigne
History repeats itself. After the suicides and homicides of the Order of the Solar Temple in Switzerland, France, and Quebec between 1994 and 1997, some European states passed laws against the “cults.” The objection by scholars that these laws would not have prevented the tragedy of the Solar Temple, a group that was largely unknown to the media and the police, but would easily be used to discriminate against unpopular minorities labeled as “cults” by their opponents, was not heard.
Panama was the theater in January 2020 of crimes that in the Central American country created an emotion comparable to the Solar Temple events in Europe and Canada. The police discovered the bodies of five children, a teenager, and a pregnant woman. Another 14 people were found tied and savagely beaten in the makeshift church where a self-styled Evangelical preacher with precedents for common crimes called Mario “Plátano” González led a community simply called “Church of God” (and sometimes “Light of God,” which created some confusion with the global Light of the World, Luz del Mundo, movement headquartered in Mexico, with which González had nothing to do).
All the victims were members of the indigenous group Ngäbe Buglé, and González’s church was located in the remote village of El Terrón, situated in the middle of a jungle and not easy to reach. González and members of his family had performed increasingly violent exorcisms, believing that many were possessed by the Devil in the village—and some needed to be killed with machetes, knives, and even Bibles heavy enough to crush small children. Nine persons are now awaiting trial for the tragedy of El Terrón.
González’s church was part of the complicated scenario of autonomous Latin American Evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity, and had little to do with the new religious movements anti-cultists usually denounce as “cults.” However, the word “secta,” the Spanish equivalent of “cult,” was liberally used, and politicians started agitating for anti-cult laws.
In the first anniversary of the events in El Terrón, MP Mayín Correa introduced an amendment to Article 88 of the Criminal Code of Panama, which would regard as an aggravating circumstance that crimes are committed by persons “acting on behalf or as part of a group pretending to be religious.” The amendment received a green light from Panama’s Supreme Court and is expected to pass as part of a reform of the Criminal Code.
While the emotion for what happened in El Terrón is understandable, the amendment has obvious problems. It is unclear how a group “pretending to be religious” may be distinguished from a group that would be “genuinely” religious. And there is no reason to single out violence committed in the name of religion and punish it more severely than violence perpetrated for different reasons. Seven Ngäbe Buglés died in the El Terrón exorcisms. More were killed to steal their ancestral lands, which are rich in copper deposits. The latter crimes are not less obnoxious than the former, and there is no reason to punish them with lesser penalties.