Commune under scrunity after death

Reuters/May 5, 2007

A tiny Christian community living a frugal existence on a plot of land in Chile has come under intense scrutiny after one of its members, a 28-year-old woman, died in childbirth and was buried illegally.

The case involving the Christian Ecological Community of Pirque has prompted questions about the rights of individuals to live as they please and the duty of a society to protect its citizens, particularly its children.

The commune, based in Pirque, a small suburb of the Chilean capital Santiago, was thrust into the media glare this week after it emerged that one member, Jocelyn Rivas, died earlier this year.

Members of the commune buried her body in the grounds of the complex without registering her death with authorities, as required under Chilean law, police said.

Police investigated and her remains were exhumed last weekend. They said Rivas died during childbirth but the exact cause of death has yet to be determined. Coroners carried out an autopsy but are not expected to announce the result for another week.

On Thursday, a court ordered the children in the commune to be taken into protection to determine their state of health.

The commune has around 30 members, including at least nine children and three pregnant women, according to local mayor Jaime Escudero.

Little is known about the group. Its members live in modest wooden houses behind fences and hedges and shun media attention.

But the few members and ex-members who have spoken to reporters say they live a simple, peaceful life, praying regularly and living off food they grow and make themselves.

"They sell the bread they produce, and they come to see us once a week generally ... and they seem to be very much at peace," Monica Echeverria, whose son lives on the commune, told national radio station Radio Cooperativa.

The children do not go to school and, according to media reports, commune members refuse to use conventional medicine, relying instead on herbal remedies and prayer.

Antonio Leal, centre-left member of parliament, urged the government to compile a register of such communities in Chile, saying there were at least 150 of them, including at least two others in Pirque.

"Anyone can live in a community, but they have to respect the law," he said.

Chile, tucked away behind the high peaks of the Andes mountains and seldom under the gaze of the outside world, has previous experience of religious communes.

The most notorious was Colonia Dignidad, formed in the 1960s by German immigrants. Its leader, Paul Schaefer, was sentenced to 20 years in prison last year for sexually abusing 25 children who lived with him on the farming commune in southern Chile.

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