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Sect vows fight over public schools

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Sprouting out of the corn fields of western Mexico rises a hill crowned with two arches and four towers, marking the gates of an improvised ''holy land'' that farmers built brick by brick over nearly four decades. The sprawling complex, they believed, would be the only place saved in the coming apocalypse: Nueva Jerusalen.

A cult has since sprung up around the detailed instructions that Our Lady of the Rosary supposedly left for followers, including how its estimated 5,000 members should dress and live. No non-religious music, no alcohol or tobacco, no television or radio, no modern dress and, the injunction that has landed them in trouble, no public education.

That last rule is at the heart of a confrontation brewing at the complex among the sect's traditionalists, its more reformist members and the Mexican government. The conflict escalated into a standoff this week between the sect and the federal and state police.

According to traditionalists, the government-mandated uniforms, school books and lesson plans, not to mention the computers and televisions now used in many Mexican classrooms, would violate the Virgin Mary's orders, on her own sacred ground.

Organized squadrons of church followers enforced those beliefs in July when they used sledgehammers and pickaxes to tear down at least two school buildings, doused the school furniture and texts in gasoline and set the whole mess on fire.

Authorities in the western state of Michoacan have vowed that public, secular education, one of the few common bonds that hold Mexican society together, would not be sacrificed, and they pledged Monday that about 250 children would be back in class in Nueva Jerusalen.

That prompted swift reaction from conservative church followers, who formed a line inside the gates to face down dozens of police officers who showed up with patrol trucks and an armored vehicle, in what turned out to be a daylong standoff.

Federal police Commander Miguel Guerrero said he was talking with both sect traditionalists and reformists who believe in the sect's central tenets but want a modern education for their children, to reach some compromise.

''We are simply discussing the community's situation,'' Guerrero said after the talks. But neither side was budging: The reformists rejected a compromise to hold classes in another town, and the traditionalists weren't going to let government schools and teachers into the community. '

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