Remote Nicaragua village backs pastor in fatal exorcism

Julia RIOS
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Pastor Juan Rocha (L) talks to his lawyer during an initial hearing in Managua into charges he killed a mother of two he claimed was "possessed by a demon"

In El Cortezal, a remote Nicaraguan village, the silence around an exorcism that left a young woman dead is as complete as the loyalty to the pastor who performed it.

The only evidence left of the macabre events that occurred February 21 are ashes from the pyre built by the religious leader and some of his followers.

The news of the death of Vilma Trujillo Garcia, a 25-year-old mother of two children, caught international headlines.

The pastor involved, Juan Rocha, 23, was arrested and taken to the capital Managua. He told police Trujillo had been "possessed by a demon" and he had tried for seven days to help her with prayers.

Witness accounts said she was stripped naked, and thrown tied up on a pile of wood that was set alight, in an exorcism ritual.

Rocha reportedly denied that version, saying the woman had herself leaped at the fire, but had been suspended aloft by the malign spirit in her.

A relative found her many hours later, covered in serious burns, and Trujillo was taken to Managua for hospital care, but she succumbed to her injuries days later, on February 28.

On Friday, Rocha was formally indicted in court for murder. He made a disjointed, incomprehensible statement about "the thing taken to hospital" and said "what was done was not easy." Three of his followers are being charged with the same crime.

- Pastor defended -

In El Cortezal, a village surrounded by forest in Nicaragua's northeast, a three-hour drive from the town of Rosita and reached only by mule and by foot, no one wanted to talk about the incident.

A few whispered about "that woman" and echoed Rocha's argument that she had thrown herself at the flames.

Their desire to protect the priest was evident.

Rafael Arista, the head of the Assemblies of God church Rocha said he represented, has denied any responsibility for the crime. He said Rocha was not a recognized pastor but a layperson who joined the congregation eight months ago.

The church, an evangelical organization, has its headquarters in the United States and claims to have 155 million worshipers worldwide.

The Assemblies of God church in El Cortezal is a modest wooden structure now closed.

Neighbors appeared unmoved by the drama surrounding the church, which serves as an anchor for the community.

Instead, they expressed hopes that Rocha would be freed and return to them.

Members of the church "have not made an appearance" since the ritual, said one woman living nearby, Maria Hernandez, who told AFP she cleaned the building.

"Here they just leave me alone," she said, her voice low.

She added: "What they did was pray, and God frees those of that evil that grabs them."

- Reliance on religion -

That reliance on religion runs through much of Nicaragua's Caribbean coast and hinterland. Prayers are often the only form of succor available when illness strikes -- be it of the body or the spirit.

What happened with Trujillo "is not a daily occurrence," said Maria Lopez Vigil, a journalist and theologian in Managua.

"But priests and pastors preach that the world is divided into light and forces of darkness, and that people need to search for the light through religion to escape the power of the devil," she said.

Miurel Gutierrez, a legal activist for women's rights, had a more down-to-earth explanation for the events in El Cortezal.

"This was a case of misogyny, where there is an explosive mix of religious fundamentalism and abuse of power," she said.

Rosario Murillo, Nicaragua's vice president and first lady, told state media that the exorcism death reflected a "backwardness." She vowed justice would be brought to bear for Trujillo.

In Rosita, the town near El Cortezal, residents expressed abhorrence at what happened -- but there was little surprise.

Some time ago, one local woman said, a pastor in the region had kept a dead body in a house for five days, telling the family his prayers would bring the person back to life.

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