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(photo credit: Nathan Burstein)
With roughly 85,000 members worldwide, Opus Dei has earned a notoriety that far exceeds what its numbers might suggest. Most of the group's adherents live in Europe (49,000) or South and Central America (29,400), and the Opus Dei central headquarters are located in Rome.
The group has been present in Israel since 1993, with approximately 30 members in the country at any time, says Christophe Rico, director of the Opus Dei Information Office in Israel since 1966. The number changes frequently, he explains, with followers visiting from and then returning overseas. The Israeli branch of Opus Dei keeps an office and residence in the Musrara neighborhood of Jerusalem, and has "one or two" full-time workers on its staff. Like the rest of Opus Dei, however, the vast majority of local members are laypeople who, like Rico, volunteer their time and services for the group.
Rico patiently clarifies two of the most widely held misperceptions put forward by The Da Vinci Code. Sipping a latte in Jerusalem's decidedly un-sinister Coffee Bean, he provides a walking contrast to the Opus Dei characters in Dan Brown's bestseller. Perhaps the book's most egregious character, the albino monk Silas, couldn't exist in real life: Opus Dei is not a monastic body, and has no monks among its ranks.
The group does believe in "personal sacrifices," Rico says, but not the type of "corporal mortification" described in bloody detail in the book. Members neither beat themselves with whips nor wear blade-studded chains around their legs, he says, explaining that "Christianity in general forbids any kind of harm against oneself. What you have in Christianity, and also in Judaism, is small renouncements in order to moderate the body." He cites brief fasts and the forgoing of occasional pleasures as examples of the sacrifices condoned by the group.
Founded in 1928 by Josemar a Escriv , a Spanish priest, the conservative Catholic group strives to "sanctify the parts of everyday life," Rico says. As reported correctly in The Da Vinci Code, the group's name means "Work of God," and members devote themselves to bringing divinity into their ordinary activities.
In Israel, those activities include regular worship, learning sessions and discussions. Sessions not devoted to prayer are open to the public, Rico says, with most events taking place at Opus Dei's local facility in Jerusalem.
However, the group has inspired harsh criticism from former members for its recruitment practices and approach to gender relations, and some former members claim that corporal mortification can indeed take on bloody and dangerous forms.
For his part, Rico says the group is most concerned about the new film's suggestion of a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, which he sees as targeting Catholicism generally and Christianity as a whole. "It's not just a problem of the Catholics, but also of the Orthodox and Lutherans, and other groups," he says. "It's always dangerous to enter into these kinds of conspiracy theories."