Several dozen members of the extremist Jewish Lev Tahor cult have turned up in the Balkan country of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The group arrived in the country in November. They were first in the capital city of Sarajevo, before moving to the nearby municipality of Istočna Ilidža in December.
Authorities said they were monitoring a group that had arrived in the country, though they did not confirm that the group was from Lev Tahor. But activists who monitor the cult said that they had been tracking its members in Bosnia and Herzegovina since they arrived there.
Slobodan Ujić, the head of the country’s Service for Foreigner’s Affairs, said there were 37 members of the group in the nation, and they are citizens of the US, Canada, and Guatemala.
Bosnia and Herzegovina have a visa-free program with those countries that allows the group to stay in the country for three months, meaning that they will need to leave in February, he said.
He said it was unlikely they would be granted asylum.
“No one has applied for asylum with the passports of these countries in the past five or six years. We do not expect this group to do such a thing either,” Ujić said.
He said there were no Interpol reports about crimes committed by any of the new arrivals. Local authorities said there were no reports of criminal activity tied to the group there, or any complaints from local residents.
The mayor of the municipality, Marinko Božović, said he was monitoring the situation.
The group’s presence was first reported by local media last week.
Authorities and the group have not said why they came to the country, or released the names of any of the group members there.
The group has largely avoided speaking with local media and other people, and seems fearful, said reporter Nataša Vasić of the klix.ba news site.
They are expected to leave in the coming days, she said.
Lev Tahor has been described as a cult and as the “Jewish Taliban,” in part because women and girls older than 3 years old 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. The group adheres to an extreme, idiosyncratic reading of kosher dietary laws.
Illegal marriages between minors and older members are common.
The group’s membership is estimated to be 200-300 people, including adults born into the group and dozens of children. The community appears to have splintered in recent months.
The group’s name means “pure heart” in Hebrew.
The secretive group’s moves, machinations, and plans are all murky. They have bounced around the globe as they flee government oversight and legal consequences for outlawed practices, like child marriage.
Last year, Lev Tahor was believed to be trying to move to Iran via Kurdistan. Members of the anti-Zionist group applied for political asylum in Iran in 2018. Documents presented at a US federal court in 2019 showed that leaders of the cult requested asylum from the Islamic Republic and swore allegiance to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Authorities in Guatemala and Kurdistan have both taken action against the group in recent months, including by blocking its movement.
Guatemala has stopped members from flying out of the country on their way to Iran, at the request of Israeli and US officials, who fear group members could be used as a bargaining chip by Tehran. Kurdish authorities have also reportedly detained some group members and deported them to Turkey.
In November, two top leaders of the group, Nachman Helbrans and Mayer Rosner, were convicted by a US federal court in New York of child sexual exploitation and kidnapping, in a case involving a family that escaped from the cult.
Lev Tahor leadership, including Helbrans and Rosner, “required young brides to have sex with their husbands, to tell people outside Lev Tahor that they were not married, to pretend to be older, and to deliver babies inside their homes instead of at a hospital, to conceal the mothers’ young ages from the public,” the US Department of Justice said.
Lev Tahor was founded by Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans in Jerusalem 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 younger Helbrans took the reins of the group in 2017 when his father drowned in Mexico and Rosner served as a “top lieutenant,” according to court documents.