Nicaraguan 'Jesus' attracts poor pilgrims to his healing shack


MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- Scores of poor and ailing pilgrims are arriving at a shack in Managua where a man with a scruffy beard and army boots has taken the name Jesus and says he can heal the sick and make blind people see.

The man, Marcos Antonio Bonilla, entered a bustling Managua market a few weeks before Easter and announced he is the son of God.

Since then, newspapers and radio stations linked to the leftist Sandinista Front have given Mr. Bonilla extensive coverage, dubbing him "Jesus of the Poor." His case has mesmerized much of the public.

Callers jam phone lines of radio shows when he appears. Some demand proof of his claims, telling him to turn rocks into loaves of bread or cure AIDS. Others proffer insults, labeling him a "beast," a "devil" or "the Antichrist."

Front-page newspaper photos earlier this month showed him putting his fingers in the ears of the deaf to make them hear and sprinkling water on the heads of the ill.

His emergence, however, is more than just a bizarre phenomenon in a Roman Catholic country struggling in peace after a decade of war. Whether Mr. Bonilla is disturbed or not, he fills the latest chapter of a long-standing rift between the revolutionary Sandinistas, who ruled from 1979 until 1990, and the conservative leadership of Nicaragua's Roman Catholic Church.

Sandinista news organs have highlighted the refusal of Cardinal Miguel Obando, the church primate, to meet with Mr. Bonilla, whose followers are generally impoverished.

An editorial in the Sandinista-linked newspaper El Nuevo Diariodescribed the church's leaders as "cloistered, out of touch with the people . . . ."

Cardinal Obando, speaking to the Miami Herald after last week, said: "The Sandinista media have always been hostile . . . [and] eager to damage the church." He said he would not grant Mr. Bonilla an audience, adding that "the psychiatrists who have spoken said this is a case deserving of psychiatric treatment."

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