In Congo, pastors subject kids to rituals that include beating, burning

USA Today, 21 May 2009

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo — Isaac Mananga, 10, and his half sister Chanel, 7, knelt on the dirt floor of the church, staring up at the pastor through scared, confused eyes.

Standing before a wooden cross, Pastor Moise Tshombe, in a robe adorned with pictures of Jesus, went into a trance. Claiming to be speaking through the Holy Spirit, he declared, “These children are witches.”

Moments later, with Isaac and Chanel by her side, the children’s grandmother, Marie Nzenze, said she believed the charges. “God has spoken through the mouth of the prophet,” she said. “God has not lied.”

According to a United Nations report issued this year, a growing number of children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are being accused of witchcraft and subjected to violent exorcisms by religious leaders, in which they are often beaten, burned, starved and even murdered. The relatively new phenomenon has become one of the main causes in Central Africa for humanitarian groups, which are organizing programs to protect children’s rights and educate pastors on the dangers of accusing children.

Ties to poverty

Liana Bianchi, the administrative director for the humanitarian group Africare, says the trend is partly the result of decades of war and economic decline in Congo. The non-profit group Save the Children estimates that 70% of the roughly 15,000 street children in Kinshasa, the capital, were kicked out of their homes after being accused of witchcraft.

“In my opinion,” Bianchi said, “poverty is really at the root of child abandonment. Accusations of witchcraft have become socially acceptable reasons for why a family turns a child out on the street.”

The practice, which has also been reported in Nigeria and Angola, can be lucrative for the priests who perform them.

Tshombe charged Julie Moseka $50 to exorcise her emaciated daughter, Noella, 8. The average annual salary in Congo is $100.

During the ceremony, Tshombe and three of his aides held Noella’s spindly limbs down and poured hot candle wax on her belly while she screamed and cried. Then the pastor bit down hard and pulled the skin on her stomach, pretending to pull demonic flesh out of her.

In an interview afterward, Tshombe acknowledged the ritual can be painful, but he says it’s necessary because otherwise the children would not be “cured.”

When asked whether he thinks Jesus would approve of what he’s doing, Tshombe said, “Why wouldn’t he be happy? I’m just using the gifts given to me by the Holy Spirit.”

Noella’s mother, agreed. “It was imperative that it happen this way,” she said, “because the child is accused of witchcraft.”

The pastors who conduct such rituals are non-denominational, and most have no theological training, says Matondo Kasese of the humanitarian group Reejer. According to Arnold Mushiete, a social worker with a small Catholic organization called Our House, Congo’s atmosphere of religious fervor, minimal education and rampant poverty makes for fertile territory for pastors who convince desperate parents that their children are the cause of their financial, medical and romantic problems.

“Formerly in our culture,” Mushiete said, “the child was a precious being. Now, because of the church, children have become harmful beings.”

Thrown into streets

Mushiete works with street children who have been accused of witchcraft. He says homeless children are frequently raped and beaten, even by police. Drug use is rampant. Girls often resort to prostitution, leaving their own babies to sleep on the side of the road at night while they sell themselves.

The Congolese legislature recently passed a law that makes it illegal to accuse children of witchcraft, but many activists, including Bianchi, say the law is not enforced.

Even the head of a special government commission to protect children accused of witchcraft said he thinks it is possible for children to be “sorcerers.”

“You sometimes see a very little child with big eyes, black eyes, a distended stomach,” Theodore Luleka Mwanalwamba said. “These are the physical aspects.”

When asked how someone with his beliefs could protect children accused of witchcraft, he said the state has “the duty to save all the people who are in dangerous situations.” He said cracking down on abusive pastors is difficult because “important people” are sometimes members of their churches.

Mushiete, the social worker, said he does not get discouraged. “The big work we want to do,” he said, “is to sensitize the pastors, so they give another image of Jesus — not a Jesus who tortures children.”

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