(photo credit: REUTERS)
A few months after moving from Canada to a remote part of Guatemala to find religious freedom, a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews have been forced out of their homes in a bitter conflict with hostile villagers.
The Lev Tahor community packed its bags on Friday in San Juan la Laguna around 150 km (93 miles) west of Guatemala City, to board buses bound for the capital after weeks of friction with sections of the local population.
Verbal abuse, threats to cut off power and eject them by force were the last straw for the Jews who began arriving in March from Canada, where the Lev Tahor group's strict religious ways had clashed with authorities.
Founded in the 1980s by Israeli Shlomo Helbrans, the Lev Tahor practice an austere form of Judaism. Winning admiration from some Jews for its devoutness, the group is condemned by others as a cult-like sect.
Helbrans declined to be interviewed, but another Lev Tahor leader in San Juan, rabbi Uriel Goldman, fielded questions about the group, which granted extensive access to Reuters as it prepared to leave the lakeside village.
Goldman insisted most of the Guatemalan villagers were friendly toward the black-clad men, women and children of the Lev Tahor but that the group was pushed out by an aggressive minority he said were motivated by local politics.
"I don't understand why they don't want us, we're doing nothing bad here," said the bearded Goldman, who like other men in the Lev Tahor, which means "Pure Heart" in Hebrew, has his head shaved and wears sidelocks beneath a black hat.
According to Goldman, a council of elders in San Juan issued an ultimatum to the Lev Tahor, saying water and electricity would be cut off if they did not leave. "They also warned us they would remove us from the village by force," he added.
Miguel Vasquez Cholotio, a member of the elders' council, said the villagers decided to expel the group because they refused to greet or have physical contact with the community.
"We felt intimidated by them in the streets. We thought they wanted to change our religion and customs," he said.
Eschewing technological trappings such as television and computers, daily life among the Lev Tahor, whose women wear body cloaks similar to a burqa, is steeped in religion.
Rejecting the state of Israel because it views the Jews as a people in exile, the Lev Tahor hope to find land elsewhere in Guatemala to build 30 houses to resettle the 200-odd strong community, Goldman said.
Around 60 members of the group left San Juan during the night with the rest set to follow.
In Canada, critics and some relatives of Lev Tahor members accused the group of keeping children in unsanitary conditions, promoting underage marriage and of physical abuse.
Leaders of the group dismissed the allegations and said the Lev Tahor were being persecuted for their religious beliefs.