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Noriega born again

MIAMI -- Deposed Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega has forsaken his interest in the occult and become a born-again Christian, a Baptist publication reported Wednesday.

In its weekly edition, The Florida Baptist Witness cites a letter from Noriega to two Texas evangelists in which he says, 'I received Jesus Christ as my Savior the 15th of May of 1990 at 11 a.m. in a small room, like unto a cave, in the Metropolitan Correctional Center of Dade County, Fla.'

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The two evangelists, Clift Brannon and Rudy Hernandez, were with Noriega, who is awaiting trial in Miami on drug-trafficking and money- laundering charges, that day and subsequently requested the written statement of faith.

They said that about 90 minutes into the meeting, they led Noriega in a prayer of confession and commitment to Jesus Christ.

Noriega wants to be baptized by immersion in accordance with the Baptist faith -- possibly in a small lake on the MCC grounds -- but so far prison officials have not been able to arrange the ceremony, said Greg Warner, associate editor of the Jacksonville publication.

Noriega is scheduled to go on trial in Miami June 24. If convicted of the charges contained in a 1988 indictment that accuses him of turning Panama into a safe haven for drug traffickers, he faces a maximum penalty of 145 years in prison and a $1.1 million fine.

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Brannon and Hernandez told the Witness about their efforts to help Noriega, who was raised a Roman Catholic and has dabbled in voodoo and the occult.

Brannon, a Longview, Texas, resident, triggered Noriega's latest spiritual quest by sending him a copy of the New Testament after watching Noriega's arrival at the federal courthouse in Miami Jan. 4, 1990, following the December 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama.

Noreiga sent Brannon, 79, a letter of thanks days later for the New Testament, saying he was renewing his search for God.

Since August, Noriega has received spiritual tutoring from Tony Ponceti, a Baptist layman in Miami who visits the general weekly and is leading him through a program of Bible study.

So far Noriega has spent 100 hours with Ponceti, and the layman says he is 'fully persuaded' that Noriega's conversion is genuine.

Defense attorney Frank Rubino said he believes Noriega has indeed become born again.

'I see a difference,' Rubino told the Witness. 'I see a more warm man. I can only guess and speculate that maybe it's got something to do with the fact that he's been incarcerated, he's been cut off from the outside world. Based upon that, he's had the time to maybe take a look inside himself and maybe take the time to look at Christ.'

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Noriega's wife and daughters, who are living in the Dominican Republic, have followed the general's lead and converted as well, said Hernandez who visited with the family Nov. 16.

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