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Orthodox Jews expelled from Guatemalan refuge after being threatened 'with lynching'

Ian Johnston

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Aug. 31, 2014

A controversial group of Orthodox Jews has been ordered out of a village in Guatemala after disputes with the local people.

A member of Lev Tahor, which was founded in the 1980s in Israel, said they had been threatened "with lynching" if they did not leave San Juan La Laguna. They started moving out on Friday after Mayan village elders voted to ask them to go.

Misael Santos, said: "We decided to leave because the Council of Elders does not want us. It's sad to leave, and there are people who like us here... when we left there were people who cried." Lev Tahor were "a people of peace", he said, and had decided to leave "to avoid an incident", according to the AFP news agency. "We have a right to be there, but they threatened us with lynching if we don't leave," he said.

Known for anti-Zionist views, the group created by Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans left Israel for the US in the 1990s, then went to Canada and Guatemala.

Miguel Vasquez, a spokesman for the elders, claimed that Lev Tahor had "wanted to impose their religion" on the people in the area. "The constitution protects us because we need to conserve and preserve our culture," he said.

A villager, Antonio Ixtamer, said some of Lev Tahor's members had displayed an arrogant attitude and harassed tourists. "On one occasion there was a tourist taking pictures of a hill and the Jews thought he was taking photos of them and they clashed," he said. "This is not normal behaviour in a community that lives off of tourism."

In New York, Rabbi Helbrans was jailed for kidnapping a boy after persuading the child, who had been sent to him to learn about Judaism, to adopt the Lev Tahor lifestyle.

In Canada, child protection bodies are examining claims of underage marriages, the alleged use of needless psychiatric medication, and a lack of healthcare and education for the group's children, according to the Toronto Star. Last year, more than a dozen were taken into care.

Shalom Pelman, a rabbi in Guatemala City, told the Star. "Even in Iran, Jews are not expelled."