LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The head of a Mexican-based church, which claims over 1 million followers worldwide, was ordered held on $50 million bail in a Los Angeles court on Wednesday on charges that included human trafficking, child pornography and rape of a minor.
La Luz Del Mundo (Light of the World) church leader Naason Joaquin Garcia, 50, was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport on Monday, prosecutors said.
Garcia and two of his co-defendants, Alondra Ocampo and Susana Medina Oaxaca, did not enter pleas, pending a formal arraignment on June 10. Judge Francis Bennett ordered the defendants to remain in custody until then.
A warrant has been issued for a fourth defendant Rangel Melendez, officials said. All the accused are affiliated with La Luz Del Mundo, prosecutors said.
Defense lawyer Dmitry Gorin called Garcia’s $50 million bail “outrageous and unreasonable”. Garcia’s wife and three children were in the courtroom.
The church, which considers Garcia to be an apostle of Jesus Christ, called the accusations unfounded.
“The Apostle of Jesus Christ, Brother Naason Joaquin Garcia, has always behaved in accordance with the law and with full respect for the institutions and the dignity of the people,” it said in a statement on its website on Wednesday.
‘GOING AGAINST GOD’
A 19-page complaint, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court on Tuesday, says three minors and one adult woman were abused, with one child and the woman raped. Others were forced to perform sex acts and dances for Garcia wearing “as little clothing as possible”, the complaint added.
Girls were told that if they defied Garcia’s desires “they were going against god”, the complaint says.
Prosecutors said Garcia and co-defendants committed a total of 26 felonies in south California from 2015 to 2018 in Los Angeles County.
The victims were not named.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra will hold a news conference on Thursday to discuss the arrest, his office said.
Internet sites say the church has between 1 million and 5 million followers worldwide in more than 50 countries including many followers in the United States.
The church’s roots go back to the 1920s in Mexico, and adheres to nontrinitarianism, rejecting a mainstream Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity. It says it adheres to the earliest doctrines of the Christian church teachings.
Reporting by Omar Younis; writing by Bill Tarrant; Editing by Lisa Shumaker
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