A dispute is brewing in Mexico between an indigenous group known as the Otomí, and the Jehovah's Witnesses they accuse of destroying one of their most sacred places.
The church has denied it had anything to do with the assault that floored stone altars, broke stone carvings, and left offerings in disarray at the highland religious site surrounded by a pine forest in the central Mexican state of Hidalgo.
Otomí began complaining about the desecration of the site — known as Mayonikha and said to be thousands of years old — as soon as it took place in May, although they were largely ignored until a local academic called Luis Pérez Lugo talked to local media this week.
Pérez Lugo, who has written books on Otomí cosmology, said he spoke to a Jehovah's Witness in the nearby town of Los Pinales who admitted the group carried out the destruction.
"He wanted to justify what he did as a divine command in the name of Jehovah," Pérez Lugo said. "I told him that we didn't come here to speak about God, that we were here to see all the destruction and say that this is wrong."
Mayonikha, which is also known as México Chiquito, or Little Mexico, is one of the few ancient indigenous ceremonious sites in Mexico that is still in use.
It holds a special importance for the Otomí community that is concentrated in Hidalgo, although smaller populations also live in nearby states, some of whom make pilgrimages to the site.
"It is shameful what they did to México Chiquito," Margarito Velazco said in a protest video uploaded onto YouTube by a group called the International Native American Congress. "Who knows what the harvests are going to be like now and I expect we will have lots of illness in our communities because of what they did there."
In the video the Otomí either generally accuse "evangelicals" or point a specific finger at the Jehovah's Witnesses who have since denied the allegations.
"We have investigated the congregations that could be near the place and we've arrived at the conclusion that the news is false and misleading," the group said in a statement distributed by its Mexico spokesman Gamaliel Camarillo. "Jehovah's Witnesses are respectful to people of other religions."
The group has expanded its presence in Mexico and Central America in recent years, along with other evangelical churches.
According to the church's official website it built 5,000 "Kingdom Halls" in the region between 1999 and 2015 to accommodate over one million members — a rate of just under one per day.
Protestant groups have tended to have particular success converting members of indigenous communities who often feel abandoned by local priests in the predominantly Catholic region. In recent years they have also stepped up their missionary work in major cities.
A law is currently under consideration in Mexico's senate aimed at halting door-to-door preaching during "improper hours." If the law is passed, those found guilty could face up to six weeks in prison.
Alan Hernández contributed to this article
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