MEXICO CITY (AP) - Hundreds of Mexican devotees of Saint Death - a cult worshipping the skeletal figure of death - marched through downtown Mexico City Friday to demand respect for their religion and its followers.
Holding banners reading "Respect Religious Freedom" and "We are not criminals or drug addicts," marchers drawn from some of the city's roughest barrios carried statues of the elegantly-clad Grim Reaper down the city's main boulevard.
The march was called in response to an investigation launched last month by Mexico's Interior Department into complaints that the church falsely registered itself as an offshoot of Roman Catholicism, which neither recognizes nor approve of the death cult.
Some of the anger was directed at the government - which has not yet decided whether to sanction the group - but there was also resentment at the official Catholic church and society at large for looking down at the Death worshippers.
"In many parishes, they say our people are all drug addicts or criminals," said Juan Manuel Cortes, 27, who officiates masses at the main Mexico City death shrine in a crime-ridden section of the old downtown. "That's not true, but we also don't close our doors to anybody."
"They say we have some bad characters, but don't they also in the Catholic church, where they worship San Judas Tadeo?" Cortes noted, referring to an official Catholic saint, St. Jude Thaddeus, who has been informally adopted in Mexico as the patron of lost causes, thieves and police.
Lucia Sanchez, a street vendor who, like many on the march, carried white gladiolas in the procession behind the grinning skeleton shrines, said, "The Catholic church should remember it was once the new religion on the block here, too," Sanchez said.Many of the faithful recount miracles performed for them by Saint Death - depicted as a smiling female skeleton known as our "Our Little White Girl," the right-hand servant of God.
Perla Almanza said her brother had been jailed on murder charges, but he was released on lack of evidence three months after she prayed to Saint Death. Asked why she didn't pray to San Judas Tadeo like many other inmates' relatives, she said, "San Judas already has too much on his plate."
While the official Catholic church did not file the complaint, some priests have accused the Saint Death, or Santa Muerte, cult of seeking to profit from people's faith.
The group registered as a religious group in 2003 under the name The Mexico-US Tridentine Church, also known as the Traditional Mex-USA Church, allowing it to legally raise money and own property.
But the Mexican government said it was considering withdrawing official recognition of the church after an excommunicated member accused the cult of forcing its members to worship death and failing to stick to its bylaws.
If recognition is withdrawn, the religion could continue but would lose money-raising and other privileges.
The faithful regard La Santa Muerte as an angel or saint who only kills based on God's orders. "It's better to make her you're friend," Almanza noted.