Churches denounce children as ‘witches'; 1000s of kids maimed and killed

Image: Accused child witches in Nigeria

“Accused child witches Jane, left, and Mary, right […] Jane’s mother tried to saw off the top of her skull after a pastor denounced her and Mary.” Source : AP, MSNBC

With Halloween just around the corner, many kids in the US will soon be joyfully donning witch costumes and visiting haunted houses at their local churches. In many parts of Africa, however, the subject of witches is no laughing matter at church.

MSNBC reports that, according to an investigation by the Associated Press, an increasing number of children are being maimed or killed because churches are accusing them of witchcraft. According to MSNBC,

“Pastors were involved in half of 200 cases of “witch children” reviewed by the AP, and 13 churches were named in the case files.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t limited to a couple hundred cases. Over the last ten years, in just two states in Nigeria,

“around 15,000 children have been accused [of witchcraft] and around 1,000 have been murdered. In the past month alone, three Nigerian children accused of witchcraft were killed and another three were set on fire.”

In many cases, the churches involved are affiliated with churches in the US, who defend themselves by saying that they are unaware of what’s going on. And more local churches are reportedly turning to the practicing of finding witches because it is profitable to them. According to a member of the Children’s Rights and Rehabilitation Network,

“Even churches who didn’t use to ‘find’ child witches are being forced into it by the competition. They are seen as spiritually powerful because they can detect witchcraft and the parents may even pay them money for an exorcism.”

So if anything, the situation seems to have worsened since I last posted about a couple of months ago. It’s good that this crisis is starting to get into the public light a little more, but that isn’t enough since at least some of these people believe they are doing what God wants them to. Churches in the US, whether directly linked to the congregations that are conducting these literal witch hunts, or just sending missionaries over to Africa, need to spread the message that witch burning and mutilation is not okay.

My hunch is that some church leaders may be shying away from a public campaign against these horrible attacks on children because the Bible actually does say that witches shouldn’t be allowed to live. (Unfortunately for these children, it doesn’t say how to tell when someone is or isn’t a witch.) I would think it’s hard for Christians to tell people to disregard something that is right there in the Bible, without worrying about throwing the whole thing into question. But with thousands of children suffering and dying, I don’t know how they can remain silent.

Child “witches” made to suffer

Exodus 22:18 tells believers that they cannot "suffer a witch to live" (KJV). From medieval Europe to the Salem witch trials and beyond, there have been witch hunts. The most recent front is in Nigeria and other countries in Africa, where children are being abandoned, tortured, mutilated, and sometimes killed because they are believed to be witches.

This isn’t news, unfortunately: it’s been occurring for years now, but the situation appears to be worsening. Not only are adults called out as witches, but more and more children are being called witches and being punished by their parents, who believe witches can bring about bad fortune: "divorce, disease, accidents or job losses ", according to the Guardian . And what is even more deplorable in my opinion is that according to the BBC , even in 2009 the Pope is still campaigning against witchcraft instead of clearly coming out against these witch hunts.

The crusade against witches in Nigeria and other parts of Africa is being led by people who call themselves Christians, from the pastors who are scaring people out of their minds with stories of witches, and charging handsome fees to perform exorcisms, to the parents and community who are shunning, torturing, or killing the witches when they can’t afford an exorcism.

People who do not buy into the witch nonsense are accused of aiding and abetting witches. According to Sam Ikpe-Itauma from the Esit Eket area of Nigeria:

For every maybe five children we see on the streets, we believe one has been killed, although it could be more as neighbours turn a blind eye when a witch child disappears.

Some people will argue that witches and witchcraft have existed in Africa for ages. Yes, but the open and merciless pursuit of witches in the name of Christianity is a much more recent phenomenon. According to the Guardian:

Although old tribal beliefs in witch doctors are not so deeply buried in people’s memories, and although there had been indigenous Christians in Nigeria since the 19th century, it is American and Scottish Pentecostal and evangelical missionaries of the past 50 years who have shaped these fanatical beliefs. Evil spirits, satanic possessions and miracles can be found aplenty in the Bible, references to killing witches turn up in Exodus, Deuteronomy and Galatians, and literal interpretation of scriptures is a popular crowd-pleaser.

Pastors openly admit that they are fighting against witchcraft.

Pastor Joe Ita is the preacher at Liberty Gospel Church in nearby Eket. ‘We base our faith on the Bible, we are led by the holy spirit and we have a programme of exposing false religion and sorcery.’

Although he denies charging for exorcisms, reports of pastors doing so are widespread.

The problem is not limited to Nigeria, but is occurring in a number of African countries, including Angola. Here is what Pope Benedict XVI had to say in March of this year

In today’s Angola, Catholics should offer the message of Christ to the many who live in the fear of spirits, of evil powers by whom they feel threatened, disoriented, even reaching the point of condemning street children and even the most elderly because – they say – they are sorcerers

At first view, this seems positive: Benedict seems to be speaking out against people who are going after kids and others because they are believed to be witches. Benedict did also say that Catholics should "live peacefully" with animists, according to the Huffington Post (a liberal political commentary site). So what’s the problem?

What’s missing is Benedict speaking for the Catholic Church condemning pastors who, in the name of Christianity, are attacking witches. No admonishment to the local church leaders who are spreading the fear of sorcery, who are tearing families and communities apart, making money off exorcisms, and exploiting the fears that they, as alleged men of God, are helping to create.

Speaking out against "sorcery" while asking for "peace" does not do this; it sends a mixed signal. Instead of clearly telling people to stop attacking witches, his solution to the problem was urging people to convert to Christianity! It’s not enough to say that people should just get along. There should be a call to hold the people responsible for these crimes accountable and to get the word out that such violence is not condoned. In my opinion, until he and other leaders launch a clear public campaign against what pastors are doing to alleged witches in Africa, they are complicit in what is happening.

Please read the articles from the Guardian and the BBC if you want to find out more. The Guardian site also has heartbreaking footage of some of the mutilated children and parents who are telling people to take their children away because they are witches (but often not being able to explain why they know they’re witches, or how to make them not witches). What is happening to these kids is too sad for me to even describe here; hundreds of them huddling up after their parents scald them, burn them, or chase them away from their homes.