Religion: The Brothers of Blood

On the surface, the ceremony seemed routine—the Roman Catholic archbishop of New Mexico presenting a book of religious music to a weather-beaten old man. But to the participants, last week's simple presentation had dramatic overtones. For the man on whom the archbishop smiled was Don Miguel Archibeque, longtime head of the self-torturing sect called Penitentes, which was officially banned by the church for almost 100 years.

The Brotherhood of Penitentes is a fossil of medieval Christianity, preserved by the isolation of village culture in the Old World and the New. Public flagellation as penance for sins was common in Europe until the...

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