234next.com, Elor Nkereuwem
The Pentecostal Church in Nigeria is on trial. It is at the centre of an angry controversy regarding its alleged role in helping the spread of child trafficking in the country.
By branding many children as witches, some churches in the Niger-Delta have inadvertently exposed thousands of children to traffickers. More poignant though is the allegation that some Christian missions, masked as charities, are actively involved in child trafficking.
The Peace Sisters, a charity operating in Abia State, which is headed by Mrs Joy Igwezu, is one of such Christian missions that have been accused of child trafficking. The Peace Sisters, under her leadership, have allegedly picked up more than 200 children from the streets in Akwa Ibom State. “In the past one year, she [Mrs Igwezu] has moved over 200 children from Oron,” says Lucky Inyang. Mr. Inyang is the programme director of Stepping Stones Nigeria (SSN), another charity group in Akwa Ibom. The Peace Sisters is a registered Charity that takes care of abandoned children. Among other things, the charity undertakes ‘deliverance from witchcraft and conversion to God’s generals’. The charity has the peculiar objective of delivering child witches.
In the Niger-Delta, where there is a strong presence of ‘pentecostal’ Christianity, it is now common place to find children who are branded as witches. A mishap, an ailment, or death usually precedes the accusation of children as witches and the begining of their troubles. A child would then need to be exorcised by a prophet or pastor. With many pastors and prophets carrying out the so called exorcism, the Peace Sisters should not stand out.
The Peace Sisters have however been accused of using the ministry to traffic children. While Mrs. Igweze is accused of taking children off the streets illegally; some children recovered from the charity also claim that they have been abused in her centre. It is also said that the children, taken off the streets, cannot be accounted for.
“We know that they have taken more than 200 children from the streets but when NAPTIP and the Police raided the Peace Sisters, they found only 28 children. So where are the other children?” asks Gary Foxcroft. Mr.Foxcroft is the programme director of Stepping Stones Nigeria UK. “A child who came back says they were sometimes beaten and sent out to hawk goods and beg on the streets. Others were given out as house helps,” says Mr.Inyang.
But Mrs Igweze denies these allegations. “I have never picked children from the streets,” she says. “How can I send children out to beg? I have never begged before and they cannot beg,” she cries. Mrs Igweze claims that the children are given to her by their parents and are returned home after their ‘deliverance’.
Sam Ikpe-Itauma agrees with Stepping Stones Nigeria. He is in charge of the Child Rights Rehabilitation Centre (CRARN), another charity for abandoned children in Eket-Akwa Ibom. “She is lying,” he says. “We were in Oron once for an outreach and the community people asked us if we had come from the Peace Sisters to pick the children. They said the Peace sisters were there two weeks earlier and had left with 10 to 15 children,” Itauma says. He says that the street children abandoned by their parents on account of witchcraft, usually hang around markets and are regularly taken away by the Peace sisters. “She does not return the children to the parents.
She claims that they are only safe from the witchcraft when they live with her,” Inyang said. Mrs. Igweze, who was arrested last year by the National Agency for the Prohibition of Traffic in Persons(NAPTIP) , claims that the Rivers State Commissioner of Police ‘facilitated her release’. She also claims to have made friends with the police, as well as NAPTIP officials who help her and support her because of the good work she does.
A charity group working in the state that wanted to remain anonymous said, this confirms accusations that Mrs Igweze ‘has huge support from some influential individuals’. “That explains why she has been arrested twice without being prosecuted,” the charity added.
The NAPTIP officers in the Uyo Zonal office refused to discuss the Peace Sisters matter. Ijeoma Uduak spoke on behalf of the Zonal director of NAPTIP. “The Peace Sisters are under investigation,” she said. In the CRARN centre are three children recovered from the Peace Sisters. Itauma says that the father of the children, Emmanuel Uweh, claimed that he paid 200,000 naira to the Peace Sisters for the ‘deliverance’ of his children.
He also claims to have handed over another baby as a gift to the Peace Sisters in gratitude for their services. Mrs Igweze denies receiving the baby gift but agrees that she often receives money for the exorcism of the children. ‘We pray for 21 days before the children are healed, so we collect money that people offer willingly. We take any amount that they give,” she says.
The process of child bewitchment and deliverance is widely accepted in the Southern States of Nigeria. There is an obvious link between the church and this phenomenon. The children are usually branded as witches by church leaders who in turn get paid to conduct the deliverance sessions on the branded children. Inyang feels that the church can play a very important role if the problem is to be solved. “The church is the biggest weakness as well as the biggest strength. The church can be the most effective tool to curb this problem,” he says. Church leaders do not agree with Inyang.
The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) says it ‘is not a mega church and cannot be expected to dictate orders to its member churches.’ S. L. Salifu, the General Secretary of CAN told NEXT on Sunday that: “CAN constitution does not say that we should regulate anybody.” The Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN), another body in charge of churches in Nigeria, tows CAN’s line.
The two bodies allude that all forms of regulation should be done by the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC), completely absolving themselves of any kind of regulatory duty. “PFN does no regulation at all. There’s nobody that can do that. It’s not possible…there’s no one that can say to churches: ‘don’t preach a particular message’,” said Joseph Ojo. Mr. Ojo is a past official of the Pentecostal fellowship of Nigeria.