Religious Sect's Trip Are Common

July 9, 1999

CARTAGENA, Colombia (AP) - Colombian police say there is no reason to fear for the followers of a religious sect whose mountain retreat has sparked media speculation about a possible mass suicide.

"There's nothing that would indicate anything irregular or criminal,'' in the sect's trip to Colombia's Sierra Nevada mountains from the Caribbean port city of Cartagena, state judicial police chief Col. Armando Silva said Thursday.

As a precaution, police were trying to determine the location of about 20 members of the Stella Maris Gnostic Church, who traveled over the weekend into the rugged northern range east of Cartagena, Silva said. Other reports have placed the number of worshippers as high as 60.

Silva said authorities had no evidence that members of the church - said to believe in doomsday millennium prophecies - were manipulated and could be in danger, as some family members have alleged.

Officials have had no direct contact with the group in the mountains. Local media have reported the church may be planning a group suicide or trying to make contact with extraterrestrials who could send spaceships to rescue them from the earth's pending destruction.

Denis Perez, son of the church's leader, Rodolfo Perez, confirmed that his father and many of the group's followers had sold their possessions to finance the monthlong "spiritual retreat.'' However, he said the group was planning to return in mid-August.

"These trips run by my father are very common. It's the third time they've gone on a spiritual retreat,'' Perez told The Associated Press.

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