Outside a church in a remote part of Nicaragua last week, a pastor and a group from his congregation stood around a bonfire for a prayer, their eyes closed and hands raised.
A 25-year-old woman needed healing, and a church leader claimed to have, through a divine revelation, instructions to build the fire to cure her. They stripped the woman naked, tied up her hands and feet and hurled her into the flames, Nicaraguan police said. She was consumed by the fire and suffered first and second degree burns over 80 percent of her body.
The woman, Vilma Trujillo Garcia, was then left in a ravine near the banks of a river, where her 15-year-old sister found her nearly nine hours later, according to local media. She was taken to a hospital in Managua, the nation’s capital, and remained in critical condition for several days before dying early Tuesday, Vilma González, a spokeswoman for Nicaraguan national police, said in a news conference.
Police arrested Juan Gregorio Rocha Romero, the church’s evangelical pastor; Esneyda del Socorro Orozco, the church leader; and three other people in connection with the Feb. 21 attack. Speaking to local press, the pastor denied that he had burned the woman, saying that she decided to burn herself because “she was demonized,” he said, adding that she had fallen into the fire after a demon had been expelled from her body.
There were a variety of theories on why she was singled out, none of them substantiated by authorities: That she was mentally ill, that she had committed adultery and that she had attacked people with a machete.
The death of Trujillo Garcia, a mother of two children, ages 2 and 5, shook the Central American, predominately Catholic country and prompted outrage from human rights activists, who called for tighter control over religious sects in the country.
Vice President Rosario Murillo called the death “truly regrettable,” adding that it reflected “a backward situation.”
“A sister who was martyred by members of her community, something that cannot, should not be repeated!” she said.
Pablo Cuevas, a spokesman for Nicaragua’s Human Rights Commission, told the local newspaper La Prensa that in some isolated parts of the country lacking government leadership, “people take justice into their own hands.”
“It is incredible that these things can happen today, there has to be a review by the authorities into all the different denominations and religions,” he said. “We can’t have things like this happening.”
Juanita Jimenez of the Autonomous Women’s Movement told local media that the “act of barbarity” was an example of fanaticism and misogyny.
“Apart from the religious aspect, nothing justifies an act that is as cruel as burning a woman, putting her on a fire with the help of other people who you have used religion to manipulate,” Jimenez said.
Some activists also called the death a severe case of “femicide,” or the killing of a woman by a man because of her gender. Latin America overall has the highest femicide rates in the world, Reuters reported last year. An organization called “Voces contra la Violencia,” or “Voices Against Violence,” counted 345 deaths of women between 2012 and 2017 in Nicaragua, a country of just over six million inhabitants.
According to a police investigation, the pastor arrived at the house of Trujillo Garcia on Feb. 15 and took her to his church to give her a “prayer of healing.” She remained in the church through Feb. 21, the day that she was allegedly thrown into a bonfire.
In a statement to police, church leader Orozco said: “God has made me a revelation, that they should make a campfire in the courtyard of the church and that a group of brothers should take the sick woman and tie her up near the fire and perform a prayer so that the demon will leave the body of the sick and go into the fire.”
When Rocha Romero, the pastor, spoke to reporters, he said, “It’s not that we were going to burn her,” according to local newspaper La Prensa. “She suspended herself and fell into the fire,” he claimed. “And when we were praying we saw that she was on fire.”
The Assemblies of God, the church body to which Rocha reportedly belonged, issued a statement denying that Rocha Romero was one of its leaders, the Associated Press reported.
Herenia Amaya, a women’s rights advocate who has been advising the woman’s family, told Univision that Trujillo Garcia presented “mental health problems,” prompting the pastor and congregation to take her to the church.
Particularly in remote areas of the country lacking in government leadership, Amaya said, “pastors and religious leaders dominate the community with apocalyptic ideologies that the devil will come.” She added that the woman’s family now feels unsafe, fearing that the pastor’s community will retaliate against his detention.
The woman’s family lived in the impoverished mining township of Rosita, about 300 miles northeast of Managua, the capital. Her husband, Reynaldo Peralta Rodríguez, said his wife was taken to the church last week when members thought she was possessed after she allegedly tried to attack people with a machete.
The husband called the group’s actions unforgivable and painful.
“My wife was not demonized,” Peralta Rodríguez told local reporters. “What they did to her was witchcraft.”
“They killed my wife, the mother of my two little ones,” he added. “Now what am I going to tell them?”
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