Members of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect have been expelled from a lakeside Guatemalan village after clashing with the local Mayan population.
Around 230 members of Lev Tahor, an intensely religious Jewish group that rejects the state of Israel, moved to Guatemala earlier this year after fleeing amid allegations of child abuse in Canada.
The group, sometimes referred to as “the Jewish Taliban” by Israeli media, reassembled in San Juan La Laguna, a tourist village in western Guatemala, where they devoted themselves to prayer and religious study.
But tensions quickly flared between the Tz’utujil villagers and their austere, black-clad Jewish neighbours.
Lev Tahor shuns technology and its female members wear black robes from head-to-toe, leaving only their faces exposed.
Canadian authorities were investigating the group on allegations of abuse and promoting underage marriage. The group’s founder, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, spent two years in prison in New York after being convicted of kidnapping a teenage boy.
Villagers referred to the Lev Tahor members as los hombres de negro or “the men in black”, saying they refused to integrate and were putting off the tourists on whom the local economy depends.
“We felt intimidated by them in the streets. We thought they wanted to change our religion and customs,” said Miguel Vasquez Cholotio, a member of the elders’ council.
The council voted to last week to expel the group. Lev Tahor members claimed in recent days they had been threatened with violence and promises to cut off the water supply to their homes.
The group packed their bags and on Friday boarded a convoy of vehicles, including a converted yellow school bus, to seek refuge in Guatemala City.
“We decided to leave because the Council of Elders does not want us,” said Misael Santos. “It’s sad to leave, and there are people who like us here because when we left there were people who cried.”
Their expulsion was condemned by Rabbi Shalom Pelman, a leader of Guatemala’s small Jewish community. “This is not typical in the world I live in. Even in Iran, Jews are not expelled,” he told the Toronto Star.
The group was founded by Mr Helbrans in the early 1990s and rejects the state of Israel, saying the Jewish promised land can only be established by God, not men.
Although small in number, Lev Tahor has attracted deep hostility in Israel and the Israeli press have closely charted the sect’s exodus from the US to Canada and on to Guatemala.