Town bewiched into church-state labyrinth

ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP)--Mayor Leni Sitnick says she will no longer issue proclamations honoring people or groups after her recent recognition of pagan religions sparked protest and anger in the community "I am deeply saddened that a gesture of good intention to support religious tolerance and freedom has caused division in our community," Sitnick said.

Sitnick proclaimed the week of Oct. 25 as Earth Religions Awareness Week a recognition of pagan religions, or Earth-centered beliefs. Critics feared the event might spark students' interest in witchcraft and the occult. Local ministers protested and asked the mayor to instead designate "Lordship of Jesus Christ Awareness Week." Byron Ballard, high priestess of a witches' circle known as Notre Dame del Herbe Mouillee, said she returned the proclamation because it caused infighting in the Christian community.

"It was never, never our intention," Ballard said. "We just wanted to raise awareness that there are people in this community who have this particular spiritual path." Sitnick had planned to sign the "Lordship" proclamation, but abandoned it at the request of some local ministers. The ministers said the proposed gesture was appreciated, but it would mean the government overstepping the constitutional boundary separating church and state.

Wait... Her name was Byron?

And if this program doesn't reduce your stress, we'll make you do even more stuff... HYDERABAD, India (AP) A reform-minded politician, trying to turn his state into India's technology powerhouse, is relying on yoga to provide a "physically and spiritually balanced" government. Chandrababu Naidu, the highest elected official in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, is known to work 18 hours a day and live on a frugal diet.

In a move to boost the alertness and improve the performance of his government ministers and officials, Naidu on Friday organized a mandatory three-day course in yoga. "Your health is precious not only for you but also for the entire state," he told participants. The course includes yoga exercises, meditation and stress reduction techniques and nutrition counseling.

The course was organized by Prajapita Brahmakumari Eshwariya Vishwa Vidyalaya, a voluntary organization promoting spiritual well-being. Naidu's tips to his ministers for improving efficiency at work: Wake up early in the morning, drink 1 1/2 gallons of water a day, practice yoga and meditation and eat light non-spicy food.

All lawmakers in Andhra Pradesh will have to undergo the yoga classes. Naidu made the decision after many lawmakers were unable to take part in his Motherland program, which involves voluntary physical work.

"The program requires people to dig, clean and do other physical work. They are unable to do it," he said. In other efforts to improve efficiency, Naidu has computerized many public records, held videoconferences with remote villages and introduced greater accountability of public officials.

The measures have won him praise from such people as Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, who invested several million dollars in a computer software facility in Andhra Pradesh.

Mexicans walk (and roll) with deceased psychic healer into the new millennium

ESPINAZO, Mexico (AP) They come to this desert village from across Mexico, from Dallas, from Chicago, from Indianapolis, crawling on their knees, calling on the spirit of "El Nino Fidencio.'' The unemployed, the disabled, the troubled touch his photograph or caress his tomb, then rub their hands over their bodies to bathe themselves in his magic.

In the haze of incense, a young boy videotapes a spirit medium in a long velour robe as she hisses and trembles, then speaks in a youthful voice. She says it is that of Jose Fidencio Constantino, a long-dead faith healer known simply as "The Child Fidencio,'' for his high-pitched voice.

Thousands of pilgrims, about half of them Mexican-Americans, come to Espinazo each fall for a three-day celebration of El Nino's spiritual birth as a healer in 1928 and his physical death in 1938. Their numbers are growing rapidly. This fall's turnout reached 20,000 people a record, according to residents of this village in northern Mexico and academics who study the phenomenon. Followers of El Nino have an official Fidencista church, winning recognition in 1993 from the government as Mexico's newest religion.

They have set up more than 500 temples across Mexico and the United States, and adherents have El Nino sites on the Internet. Mexican entrepreneurs are considering putting up a hotel in Espinazo, where residents have traditionally played host to Fidencistas for free. Vendors crowd its dirt streets during the fall gathering to hawk Nino-adorned clocks, candles, amulets and T-shirts.

"The miracles he does bring the people here,'' said Flor Lerma, 35, who runs a catering business in Pharr, Texas. "He helped my nephew survive open-heart surgery. He cured my little brother who was sick. I come because it's true.'' El Nino was a poor peasant from the central Mexican state of Guanajuato. Believers say he discovered his calling as a healer through a direct revelation from Christ and the Holy Spirit beneath a sacred tree in Espinazo in 1928. He was 23.

Old newspaper photos show El Nino purportedly operating on people in the street using only shards of glass. He provided herbal medicines for the sick, and he treated the mentally ill using a giant swing. Even former Mexican President Plutarco Elias Calles sought out his help. Today, a cabinet next to his tomb holds bottles with tumors, kidney stones and teeth that the faithful credit El Nino with extracting both himself and through mediums who practice his methods. A bathtub where he brewed herbal concoctions is filled with old casts, lockets of hair, photos and thank-you notes.

El Nino is said to have never charged for his services, calling his abilities a gift from God. Mediums who say they "channel'' his spirit keep up the tradition, offering their services only for food and lodging during the fall pilgrimage. "The main reason people come to El Nino is for their health,'' said Hector Hernandez, 48, a medium from Reynosa near the U.S. border. "He doesn't charge, while medicine keeps getting more and more expensive.''

During this year's celebration, families came from all across Mexico and from Texas, Indiana and Washington. Buses, vans and cars filled the village of 500 people, spilling into the yucca-studded plain surrounding Espinazo. Spiritualists led the groups, one of which wore matching purple T-shirts reading: "In the name of God, we walk with Nino Fidencio into the New Millennium.''

Donning colorful pointed caps and flowing white robes tied at the waist with a rope like the one El Nino used, mediums spoke in high-pitched voices. They danced to Mexican cowboy trios belting out songs about El Nino's life. Some threw candies into the crowd as El Nino once did. Pilgrims made their way down the Street of Penance toward the tomb. Grandmothers inched on their knees. Others rolled on their sides up the rocky road. Some followed on crutches and in wheelchairs. The procession to the former clinic-turned-shrine continued day and night. Outside, celebrants in pre-Hispanic costumes danced to beating drums.

Most of the faithful are Roman Catholics, although the church does not recognize El Nino. But such phenomenons are not uncommon in Mexico, where Spanish evangelists allowed Indians to maintain local beliefs while adopting the church's doctrine. For years, Fidencistas were accused of witchcraft and had to practice their faith in El Nino discreetly. Catholic priests were known to bar Fidencistas from their churches, and even to refuse to perform last rites for them. Mediums were jailed for practicing medicine without a license.

"We suffered a lot of criticism and attacks,'' said Gerardo Lopez de la Fuente, a lawyer whose grandfather adopted El Nino as his son. "We decided to form a civil association to dignify the Fidencistas and prevent people from exploiting our faith.'' But even as they created their own church, Fidencistas were surprised to find that many followers want to remain Catholics, which has caused a split in the movement, said Leo Carrillo, a professor at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi who is working on a book about the movement.

The movement seems sure to change. The leading channeler of El Nino's spirit is 85 and in poor health, raising concerns about who will guide the folk movement in the future, said Antonio Zavaleta, a University of Texas-Brownsville anthropologist who has studied Fidencistas for 11 years. Yet the movement in itself doesn't mean much to most Fidencistas, like Ricky Vasquez of Dallas, who says he'll continue communicating to El Nino as he always has from his heart.

The tattoo-covered 32-year-old credits El Nino with saving him from everything from the law to cancer. "For Hispanics, this type of thing is normal,'' he said. "A lot of people go to the doctor and think anything he says will help. But really it all boils down to one thing: faith.''

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