Authorities in Guatemala raided the compound of a haredi Orthodox sect living there, separating children from their parents, after allegations of physical and mental abuse surfaced.
Israel’s Justice Ministry said Sept. 13 that the Central American country had obeyed its request to crack down on the Lev Tahor group, according to Orthodox news website Kikar Hashabbat.
The Guatemalan government suspected the sect of performing child marriages and abusing members, including children.
The Justice Ministry said it was in touch with Guatemalan authorities to ensure the safety of Israeli citizens, including minors, who are members of the group, according to Kikar Hashabbat. The report did not specify how many people are currently members of the group or in what city the compound in question was located.
In June, a court in Guatemala indicted the ex-mayor of a small town for “participating in the expulsion of a religious community,” after some 230 members of Lev Tahor were forced out of the village in 2014. The expulsion followed religious disputes with its Mayan residents, who are Roman Catholic.
The mayor of San Juan La Laguna, Antonio Adolfo Perez y Perez, was charged with abuse of authority and discrimination and sentenced to house arrest, the local newspaper Prensa Libre reported. He had lost his political immunity on Jan. 14 after he was not re-elected.
By August 2014, most Lev Tahor members had settled in Guatemala, leaving behind their previous place of residence near Chatham, Ont., after authorities in both Ontario and Quebec, the sect’s previous home, alleged mistreatment of children. Others left for Israel and the United States.
Lev Tahor vigorously denied all the allegations by the Canadian authorities and said they are victims of a religious smear.
Rabbi Reuben J. Poupko, co-chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs – Quebec (CIJA-Quebec) issued the following statement:
“Following an investigation by the Quebec Director of Youth Protection (DYP), and an order by the Quebec and Ontario authorities to place the children in foster homes due to abuse and neglect, the sect fled to Guatemala in 2014,” Rabbi Reuben Poupko, co-chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs – Quebec, said in a statement.
The group shuns technology and its female members wear black robes from head to toe, leaving only their faces exposed. It was founded by an Israeli, Shlomo Helbrans, in the 1980s and rejects the State of Israel, saying the Jewish Promised Land can only be established by God, not men.
Guatemala is home to some 1,200 Jews in a population of 15 million.