Members of the Mexican church whose leader was arrested in California on human trafficking and child rape charges insisted Wednesday on his innocence, and decried his $25 million bail as disproportionately high.
Naason Joaquin Garcia, who is known by members of the La Luz del Mundo (The Light of the World) as the "Apostle," faces US charges for 26 suspected felonies, including rape of minor and child pornography, committed between 2015 and 2018.
Prosecutors allege Garcia and three co-defendents - all women affiliated with the church - coerced minor girls into performing sexual acts by convincing them that if they went against the "Apostle" they were also going against God.
"These are all false accusations," Adrian Calvillo, a spokesperson for the Guadalajara-based church, said at a press conference. "This is something we consider to be totally slanderous."
Nicolas Menchaca, a public relations representative from the church, complained that the $25 million bail set by a California judge "seems extremely disproportionate."
If it can be shown that bail for others has been set lower then "we consider this an act of religious discrimination," he said.
California's Attorney General Xavier Becerra said authorities had launched an investigation into Garcia in 2018 following an online complaint about clergy abuse to the California Department of Justice.
"We must not turn a blind eye to sexual violence and trafficking in our state," where La Luz del Mundo has gained influence in recent years, Becerra said in a statement Tuesday .
The church, which says it has five million followers in 50 countries, has called its members in Mexico to engage in continuous prayer for their 50 year-old leader.
The congregation was founded in 1926 in Mexico by Eusebio Joaquin Gonzalez, who said he had recieved a "divine revelation."
More than half a million followers gathered in Guadalajara for six days in August 2018 to perform their 80th "holy supper," one of the largest religious ceremonies in the world -- with mass baptisms, 600,000 loaves of bread, 20,000 liters of wine and attendents dressed in white straining to touch Garcia as he arrived at the church's headquarters escorted by his "royal guard."
La Luz del Mundo says their 2019 gathering will proceed as scheduled from August 9 to 15.
"We trust that Naason Joaquin, the apostle of Jesus Christ, will soon be acquitted," Menchaca said.