LIMA (Reuters) - In Peru’s capital, a group dressed in biblical-style robes, veils, and sandals gathered one recent Sunday night to celebrate an unlikely victory: their congregation had overnight become a major force in the country’s new Congress.
One by one, a dozen of those who had run for office paraded on stage, thanking their “master” and party president Ezequiel Jonas Ataucusi Molina, who is sometimes revered as a god.
“In 2021, our master will be president!” proclaimed Esther Yovera, alluding to presidential elections next year.
Ataucusi himself was not there, however. He has ruled the secretive Christian group behind the party for 20 years but has been seen in public just once. Most followers have never met him and so little is known about his day-to-day whereabouts and activities that his sister and some followers have previously gone to the police to report him missing.
The rise of this fringe party, the Agricultural People’s Front of Peru (Frepap), is one of the effects of a political upheaval in the copper-rich country that has toppled much of the ruling class - leaving an enigmatic religious leader in charge of the country’s no. 3 legislative force.
“As president of our party, he can propose laws, and that’s what we are here for, to make them happen,” said Maria Teresa Cespedes, one of 15 Frepap lawmakers who will be sworn in later this month.
Ataucusi could not be reached for comment.
“He’s very busy, as you all know,” Cespedes added.
While Frepap ran in January’s election on a secular platform focused on stronger labour laws and more congressional accountability, over a dozen followers told Reuters that the party’s mission is religious at heart.
“Strategically, it is to show the world that we are the chosen people,” said Isai Huanaco, who has been part of the church since birth and ran unsuccessfully for Congress.
The church, called the Israelite Mission of the New Universal Pact, has for 50 years preached strict Bible adherence, while proclaiming that Peru’s most powerful pre-Columbian indigenous people, the Incas, were blessed by the Judeo-Christian God. Its followers have been encouraged to wear robes and colonize remote lands in Peru’s rainforest.
Now, their mysterious leader wields potentially significant political power, but his agenda remains unknown. Frepap’s elected lawmakers have been noncommittal on potential alliances with other parties while Ataucusi, who has made no known political statements, remains silent.
“I think nobody before the election could have predicted this,” said Eduardo Dargent, a professor at Peru’s Catholic University. “We’ll have to explore it and study it.”
In a turquoise room awash with burning incense, Felipe Pumacayo, dressed in a gray robe, spoke to a group of believers. He mixed religion and politics, diagnosing Peru as filled with corruption and injustice that needed fixing.
“That’s why we have been called on, our people, to know God’s commandments and spread them in society,” he said of Frepap.
The church’s services last a full day, from Friday evening running overnight into Saturday. Women sit on the left, men to the right. They sing biblical psalms to the rhythms of “chicha” music, created by Andean migrants who moved to Lima.
Juan Caceres, an elder preacher, explained that entering politics was a way to expand the congregation’s influence.
“Politics is just another mass media to spread our faith,” he told Reuters.
Frepap’s shock political victory has given the group’s oft-repeated concept that they are the chosen people a major boost.
“Our master said the world would come to find us one day,” said a congregation member who works at a robe store. “And what finally made us known to the world? It was politics.”
The church was founded by Ataucusi’s father, Ezequiel Ataucusi Gamonal, an indigenous Peruvian who worked as a carpenter and said God spoke to him in a series of revelations.
The elder Ataucusi was a natural orator with a catchy cadence, who founded Frepap in 1989 and ran unsuccessfully for president thrice. After he died in 2000, his followers venerated his corpse for three days, awaiting his resurrection.
That’s when the younger Ataucusi took the helm, aged 28. He spoke for four minutes at his inaugural ceremony. Then he was not seen again.
The mystery around him has helped imbue him with a godly aura that is different from his father’s.
“To me, in spirit, he is God,” said Fredy Cabrera, a taxi driver and congregation member. “In his body resides the holy spirit.”
The congregation celebrates Ataucusi’s birthday every Jan. 22, but he has yet to make an appearance. At the end of the night, a church leader diligently gives a reason for his absence.
Those who have met him told Reuters he is shy and dislikes the spotlight. His followers see this as a sign of humility.
Raquel Ataucusi, his younger sister, said he enjoys driving trailer trucks. She has been estranged from her brother and reported him as missing in February, forcing Ataucusi to show up at a police station.
Public records say he lives in a poor settlement in Lima next to a dirt road. On a recent sweltering afternoon, a woman answered the doorbell after about a dozen tries. Ataucusi was away.
“I don’t know when he will be back,” she said.
(The story corrects typographical error in paragraph two).
Reporting by Marcelo Rochabrun; Additional reporting by Marco Aquino; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Rosalba O'Brien