Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega had been locked up in a federal prison outside Miami for less than a week when a package arrived with his name on it. Inside was a leather-bound copy of the Soul Winner’s New Testament, an evangelical text designed to convert people to Christianity.
It was January 1990. Noriega, who died Monday at 83, had surrendered to U.S. forces at the beginning of the month following the military invasion of Panama under President George H.W. Bush.
Noriega’s New Testament came from the Rev. Clift Brannon, an evangelical minister from Longview, Tex., who claimed to have seen the deposed dictator carrying a bible under his arm as he turned himself over to his captors.
Over the course of more than two years, while awaiting trial on federal drug trafficking charges, Noriega, a nominal Roman Catholic, underwent a full-fledged conversion to evangelical Christianity — a transformation guided by Brannon and another minister, and purportedly consummated by his baptism in a portable fiberglass tub in the atrium of a federal courthouse, surrounded by a dozen guards.
It became a signature achievement for the two ministers, a sort of feather in the cap for the lifelong religious men, both now deceased, who went on to boast about it in media interviews. Family members even mentioned Noriega’s conversion in Brannon’s obituary.
Whether Noriega’s conversion was “authentic” is, of course, impossible to tell.
Once a U.S. ally and CIA asset, he became a brutally repressive dictator in the years before he was ousted from power, accused of ordering the murder of his opponents and turning Panama into a haven for drug cartels. Some speculated he took up Christianity to win sympathy in the media or mercy from the judge trying his case.
“Is it sincere remorse or cynical spin control?” asked the Los Angeles Times in story about faith in the prison system that referenced Noriega’s conversion. “Prison religion presents a baffling juxtaposition of good and evil, one that has inspired wonder, skepticism — and a sometimes strange array of ministries.”
It’s common for prisoners to adopt a new religion while incarcerated. Faith groups maintain a strong presence in the U.S. prison system, which permits religious proselytizing. In a 2011 Pew survey of prison chaplains in all 50 states, three-quarters of them reported that religious switching occurs “a lot” or “some” among the inmates at the facilities where they worked. “America’s state penitentiaries are a bustle of religious activity,” Pew wrote.
Research shows prisoners convert for a variety of reasons. In many cases, conversion serves as a coping strategy and “shame management” tool, as a 2006 study by a group of British social scientists found.
The authors wrote: “The narrative creates a new social identity to replace the label of prisoner or criminal, imbues the experience of imprisonment with purpose and meaning, empowers the largely powerless prisoner by turning him into an agent of God, provides the prisoner with a language and framework for forgiveness, and allows a sense of control over an unknown future.”
Whatever the case, Noriega seemed the prime candidate for Brannon, who happened to be the editor of the Soul Winner’s New Testament he sent to the maximum security cell where the Panamanian strongman was jailed in January 1990.
If a write-up from American Rehabilitation Ministries, a Christian-run prison outreach program, is to be believed, Noriega responded to Brannon’s gift in a letter on Jan. 10, thanking him for the copy of the Scriptures.
As soon as Brannon received the letter, he applied for a permit to visit Noriega in prison, according to the ministry program, which goes by the acronym A.R.M.
Brannon and another minister, the Rev. Rudy Hernandez of San Antonio, were soon conducting weekly religious instruction sessions, according to a 1991 story in the New York Times, which backs up some of the A.R.M. account. Brannon led the sessions while Hernandez translated in Spanish.
Noriega, a former Roman Catholic known to have dabbled in the occult, embraced evangelical Christianity and prayed for forgiveness in a three-hour session in May 1990, the Times reported.
“I received Jesus Christ as my Saviour the 15th May of 1990 at 11 a.m.,” he wrote in letters about his conversion. In some letters, he wrote that he had suffered from “illusions of grandeur and a heart hardened to the Gospel.”
His attorney confirmed his conversion at the time, dismissing questions about whether it was all a ploy to curry favor with the judge. “There are people who are just cynical about everything,” the attorney told the Times.
Brannon and Hernandez were triumphant. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune in 1991, they lauded Noriega’s “generous heart” and his apparent plans to help drug addicts down the road. The ministers also stressed that they weren’t seeking attention by working with Noriega.
“We could tell he needed God, that the Lord had chosen him,” Hernandez said. “We didn’t say, ‘he’s a very influential man, let’s get him.’”
“If somebody told me I could visit Saddam Hussein, I would pay my way to Iraq,” he added.
Prosecutors weren’t impressed by Noriega’s conversion. Diane Cossin, spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office, told the Associated Press at the time that Noriega’s religion “is his personal business” and would have no bearing on his trial.
“Sin is endemic in the trafficking of illegal narcotics,” she said, “and our criminal laws are built on the belief that people are responsible for their acts.”
In fall 1992, Noriega was sentenced to 40 years in prison on a drug trafficking and conspiracy conviction.
Shortly after, Brannon and Hernandez petitioned the judge in the case to have Noriega baptized. They asked for a portable fiberglass baptistery — the receptacle used for baptisms — to be “taken into the courtroom and for General Manuel A. Noriega to be immersed in accord with the Holy Scriptures and in obedience to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The judge consented, according to A.R.M., which supplied the baptistery.
The ceremony on Oct. 24, 1992, must have been quite a spectacle, if A.R.M.’s account is accurate. According to the ministry, the baptistery was taken to an atrium outside the door of one of the courtrooms and filled with water. The ministry described what happened next:
When the baptistery was filled, the Deputy Marshall brought General Manuel Antonio Noriega into the courtroom to be baptized. Surrounded by 12 guards, Noriega, wearing civilian clothes, took off his jacket and shoes, and got into the baptistery. Brannon preached on the meaning of baptism as Hernandes interpreted, followed by prayer and Scripture reading. Brannon then baptized Noriega in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Brannon says that when Noriega “came up out of the water” you could feel the presence of the Holy Spirit in the room. “Rudy had an accordion, and we all sang Amazing Grace, which reverberated off the marble floor”, Brannon said.
“Its one of those sacred moments,” Brannon said. “I could feel God speaking that He was well pleased.”
Both Brannon and Hernandez died in 2005. An obituary for Hernandez makes no mention of Noriega. But an obituary for Brannon in his hometown newspaper said the minister viewed Noriega’s conversion as a “crowning moment.”
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