The leader of the controversial church, Naason Joaquin Garcia, was arrested in Los Angeles in June on sex crimes charges, including child rape.

Joaquin, who claims to be the last apostle of Jesus, and three co-defendants are accused of coercing minor girls into performing sexual acts by telling them that going against his wishes would be going against God.

But if the scandal has diminished the fervor of the five million members the church claims worldwide, there is no sign of it at the Light of the World's annual gathering this week at its headquarters in Mexico's second city, Guadalajara.

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from 58 countries have descended on the western city to take part in a week-long "holy convocation," the church's main event of the year, which will culminate in a "holy supper" Wednesday.

With mass baptisms, 2,000 gigantic loaves of bread and 28,000 liters of wine, the faithful are clinging fast to their church -- and its leader, absent for the first time ever this year.

"I'm telling you with 100 percent certainty: He's innocent. He's an honorable man. His heart is a precious work of God," said Andres Riquelme, 48, who traveled from his native Panama to be baptized along with more than 2,000 other believers Monday, the first of three days of mass baptisms.

Absent but present

Joaquin, 50, has been a powerful presence despite his absence.

An enormous photo of him hangs above the church's choir, his name is constantly on his followers' lips, and he even addressed a letter to the gathering from his California jail cell.

In the text, which was read out at the meeting, he assured his followers that while he awaits trial on 26 US felony counts, he is fulfilling a different "divine mission": preaching to his fellow prisoners.

"God's plan is perfect, even though it is not always pleasant," he said in the message. He told his congregation he was "preaching the word" to fellow prisoners from Russia, Ukraine and Croatia, seeking to spread his faith to their countries.

The judge in the case set Joaquin's bail at $25 million -- later doubled to $50 million -- ruling that he posed a flight risk.

His followers call that evidence of religious persecution.

Tears, hymns and prayers

The church was founded in 1926 by Eusebio Joaquin Gonzalez -- Joaquin's father -- who claimed to have experienced a "divine revelation."

Extreme religious fervor has been on full display in Guadalajara this week, with believers crying, shouting and praying with twisted faces and full-throated shrieks.

"Do you believe in Jesus Christ?" a minister asked newly baptized members, who responded "Amen!" with their right hands raised before being plunged into the full-body baptismal pools.

They have sometimes met with hostility in Guadalajara.

Last weekend, protesters threw rocks at a bus that was carrying pilgrims to the group's sprawling, white-spired church.

"The church has never doubted for a moment that God will give his answer. We know that (Joaquin) is an honorable man, an innocent man. We are waiting for God, patiently and in prayer," said Elpidio Acevedo, 60, a Mexican man who was among the newly baptized.

The Light of the World claims to have 1.8 million members in Mexico and five million worldwide.