Guatemalan authorities stopped two buses carrying members of an extremist Jewish ultra-Orthodox sect from traveling across the border into Mexico, from where they were reportedly planning to reach Iran to seek asylum, Hebrew media reported Monday.
At the request of Israeli and US officials, who fear the Lev Tahor community could be used as a bargaining chip by Tehran, Guatemala has already prevented members from flying out of the country as they tried to head to the Islamic Republic.
The buses were stopped Sunday on their way to Mexico, where the passengers were apparently planning to board a plane to Kurdistan as a steppingstone to their final destination in Iran, the B’Hadrei Haredim website reported.
Video published by the website, which caters to the ultra-Orthodox community, showed women and children on one of the buses, which appeared to have been stopped on a main highway.
Members of the Lev Tahor group, which is anti-Zionist, applied for political asylum in Iran in 2018. Documents presented at a US federal court in 2019 showed that leaders of the fringe Hasidic cult requested asylum from the Islamic Republic and swore allegiance to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Last week it was reported that concerns were building that hundreds of members of the group, mainly based in Guatemala, could be trying to move to Iran after dozens of families were spotted at the airport in Guatemala, apparently on their way to the Kurdistan-Iran border.
An advance party of community leaders is reportedly already in Kurdistan, waiting for the rest of the group to arrive.
Relatives of the Israeli cult members had contacted the Foreign Ministry and Justice Ministry and asked them to urgently contact their Guatemalan counterparts to prevent the families from leaving. Relatives of American members were making similar requests to the US State Department, the Ynet website reported.
According to the report, the Guatemalan authorities have already detained a number of the cult members who hold US citizenship and were allegedly on their way to Iran in recent days, after a request from American authorities.
The report said the cult was initially planning on moving to the Erbil region of Iraq, which borders Iran and which they believe to be biblical Babylon.
Relatives are additionally concerned about Islamic State activity in the region.
The Lev Tahor sect was founded in Jerusalem by Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans in the 1980s. The group fled to Canada and then to Guatemala in 2014 after coming under intense scrutiny by Canadian authorities for alleged child abuse and child marriage.
The group has been described as a cult and as the “Jewish Taliban,” as women and girls older than 3 are required to dress in long black robes covering their entire body, leaving only their faces exposed. The men spend most of their days in prayer and studying specific portions of the Torah.
“Marriages” between minors and older members are common.
Earlier this year, Guatemalan and US police targeted the sect in a joint raid in the Central American nation, arresting two of its leaders on suspicion of abusing and kidnapping children.