By Associate Editor Joe May

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CLARKSVILLE, Ark. (BNc)- A minister with the Clarksville church of Christ has pleaded not guilty to raping children under his care.

According to a story by Mary Kinsey Benefield in the Russellville, Ark.-based Courier-News, Jose Banda, 48, was arrested in late December for the alleged rape of five girls under the age of 14 who were members of the local body at Clarksville.

Banda, a Mexico native and resident alien in the US, was employed by the Clarksville congregation as a Hispanic minister from July 2002 until the charges surfaced in November 2007.

According to the newspaper, police were summoned to the Johnson Regional Medical Center where they met with two girls under 14 who alleged that Banda had raped them. The next day, Arkansas State Police Investigator Stacie Rhoads conducted interviews with five girls–including the original two victims.

All claim to have been raped by the suspect, police stated.

On October 3, 2007, church leaders placed Banda on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation. He was relieved of all ministerial duties at that time, church leaders told the newspaper.

Banda, known as “Emano” to the girls, often took groups of children on outings to McDonalds and a local park on what was known as “Girls’ Night.” The outings were apparently done without the knowledge or consent of the church leaders, the newspaper stated.

The girls told police the incidents allegedly took place on church outings and in an office at the church building.

Banda remains in custody at the Johnson County Detention Center under a $500,000 bond. Trial is set for May 29.

According to Churches of Christ in the United States, the Clarksville congregation averages around 260 members.