The New Promised Land

A lengthy journey down the Amazon River leads to a remarkable discovery that harkens back to biblical times. Los Israelitas, an evangelical sect that blends early Christian beliefs with the pageantry of Hollywood cinema, live in small agricultural communities scattered along the banks of the river. The group, officially known as Asociación Evangélica de la Misión Israelita del Nuevo Pacto Universal (AEMINPU), was founded in 1958 by Ezequiel Gamonal in Peru. Gamonal, a village shoemaker from southern Peru who enjoyed the movies of Cecil B. DeMille, converted from Catholic to Seventh-day Adventist in the 1950s. Several years later, Gamonal proclaimed that he had been chosen by God to inaugurate the new Israel. He declared the Amazon rain forest to be the New Promised Land, and many of his followers left their homes throughout Peru to colonize these remote territories and begin a new way of life.

Los Israelitas observe the Sabbath on Saturday. A large copy of the Ten Commandments (La Ley Real) and a small ark are on display at the front of their sanctuary. Men do not cut their hair or beards, and women and girls cover their hair with headdresses. Their version of the bible includes both the Old and New Testaments. Like the Seventh-day Adventists, they do not observe Christmas or Easter, and there are no crosses or representation of Jesus, Mary or Saints to be found anywhere.

From Sunday through Friday, the men wear ordinary clothing and tuck their long hair under baseball caps while they fish, tend their livestock, and work the fields, the women care for their children or teach in the local school, and the children attend school, play with friends and tend to their chores.

There are elaborate celebrations on Saturdays for the Sabbath, and every month on the occasion of the new moon. Men dress in long, flowing robes and hold their well-worn bibles, women wear their finest garb, and young girls carry tambourines festooned with colorful ribbons. The day-long services, with men and women sitting on opposite sides of the sanctuary, include bible readings, sermons, and the singing of hymns accompanied by a brass band and shaking tambourines. After a break at midday when a hearty meal is served in the common dining room, the congregation returns to the sanctuary for more prayers, hymns and readings.

The priests then prepare and carry out an animal sacrifice, which may be a few small doves, a lamb or even a full-grown bull. The offering is carefully cleaned, rubbed with salt and anointed with olive oil. The priests construct a large pyre on the altar in front of the sanctuary, and place the offering on the flames while the brass band plays and congregation looks on and prays. These images provide a glimpse into the celebrations of this unusual community living deep in the Amazon rain forest.

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