They live in the rainforest, till the land and follow a strict interpretation of the Old Testament. On Saturday, they offer animal sacrifices to God; in their churches, men and women sit separately. And just like religious Jews, they close their shops to observe the day of rest “every Friday, at 6:15 P.M.,” says a villager. They live close enough to the equator that the sun sets at almost the same time year-round.
Deep in the Peruvian Amazon, the Christian sect known as the Evangelical Israelite Mission of the New Universal Covenant follows a mix of Pentecostalism, Judaism and Inca traditions and is dedicated to building what they call a New Israel.
The sect was founded in the 1950s by a Peruvian shoemaker named Ezequiel Gamonal after he claimed to receive a revelation that Peru was the new Jerusalem, and Peruvians were the new Israelites.
In 1968, the Peruvian government officially recognized the group as a religious movement. Around that time, the sect founded a political party called the Agricultural People’s Front of Peru (FREPAP), with the slogan “Power to the Farmer.”
Gamonal attracted followers during Peru’s economic collapse in the 1970s and the guerrilla war waged throughout the 1980s by the Shining Path, a Maoist insurgency group. The militants, trying to overthrow the government, targeted indigenous peasants, many of whom turned to the Evangelical Israelite Mission in search of a more peaceful life.
By the time of Gamonal’s death in 2000, the sect had grown from a few hundred members to reportedly tens of thousands (in the 1990 presidential race, Gamonal received 200,000 votes).
With their Biblical-style robes, New Israelites are a common, if unexpected, sight in the Amazon. In accordance with the Old Testament, neither men nor women cut their hair. Women wear a long, silky cloth as a head covering – something between a hijab and a tichel, the kerchief worn by observant married Jewish women.
Prayer services mix worship and entertainment, much like contemporary Christian bands. Young men wail on electric guitars, while girls – maidens, as they’re known – sing hymns, clap and wave pom-poms. Older women raise their hands to the sky in exultation under the blistering sun, surrounded by thatched huts and cobbled wooden structures with corrugated metal roofs.
In New Israelite churches, slogans celebrating Jehovah decorate the altar, which features a prominently displayed portrait of Gamonal. Alongside Jesus, he is considered a prophet. The two tablets of Moses are a common sight, along with a rainbow, which the followers interpret as a sign of the covenant, and God’s promise that the planet will never again be inundated by a Great Flood.
Ironically, the villagers face months of intense flooding during the Amazon rainy season. The constant threat of malaria and infertile soil for crop cultivation make for difficult living conditions. Due to their relative seclusion, they have only sporadic access to medical care, and the distance from government institutions means that in some border villages, Peruvians use Brazilian reals as currency, rather than the Peruvian sols. Despite this isolation, or maybe because of it, Gamonal aspired to hold political office and ran for president three times on the FREPAP ticket. He died during his last campaign.
Six years after his death, in 2006, FREPAP won less than 1 percent of the vote in Peru’s general election; it’s doubtful that the group will ever fulfill Gamonal’s political ambitions. But his movement, with its Biblically-inspired customs and agrarian focus, continues.