NAIROBI, Kenya (OSV News) -- Catholic bishops in Kenya have expressed shock and strongly condemned the mass "starvation suicide" in Shakahola, a remote forest-ranch area in eastern Kenya, where a pastor led congregants to fast to death.
Kenyan authorities still continue to retrieve bodies from shallow graves in the 800-acre ranch in Kilifi County near the town of Malindi. On April 27 the official death toll was 95. All victims were followers of the Good News International Church Pastor Paul Mackenzie. He told his followers to pray and fast to meet Jesus and that the world would end April 15.
"He (Mackenzie) had an elaborate plan of killing children, youths and then adults, telling them he would be the last one to starve himself to death," one of the hospital staff in Malindi, where corpses and survivors are being taken, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.
Since April 21, authorities have retrieved bodies hastily interred in the mass graves. In some of the chambers, they have found entire families with the parents buried alongside their children. Search teams combing the ranch have warned that the numbers will rise.
As families arrived in the town of Malindi in search of their relatives following the Shakahola tragedy, the Kenyan Red Cross Society in Kilifi County said April 26 that officials had recorded 322 missing people. Some of the devastated families that arrived in Malindi had lost several relatives to the cult.
"We condemn in the strongest terms possible, the cultic preaching orchestrated by (the) pastor … which induced his followers to fast to death," said Archbishop Martin Kivuva Musonde of Mombasa, president of the Kenyan bishops' conference, in a statement April 24.
Mackenzie, a televangelist, started his church in Malindi in 2003. Since then, he had been in trouble with the authorities for allegedly radicalizing children while demanding that they leave school. He also instructed his followers to leave their jobs, burn all their academic certificates and shun modern medicine in hospitals. He also demanded his members live on the ranch where he moved in 2015 to allegedly practice farming.
Some of the victims of the gruesome saga, which has been dubbed the "Shakahola Forest Massacre," have been missing for years. Most victims are from Kenya, but some are from Tanzania and Nigeria.
There are more than 4,000 churches registered in Kenya. Religious demographics indicate that nearly 85% of the 53 million people are Christians. Over 11 million are Catholics, spread over 26 dioceses.
However, charismatic or Pentecostal church leaders, preaching the "prosperity gospel" are popular and often push their members to donate heavily to the churches to improve their financial well-being.
The region in which the "starvation killings" occurred lies within the borders of the Mombasa Catholic Archdiocese. Archbishop Musonde said he regretted that the so-called prophets and cultic leaders in Kenya had mastered the art of exploiting gullible citizens in the name of religion.
"In the process, their innocent followers have lost money, property and now lives. We wish to inform Kenyans that cultism is a dangerous phenomenon and they must always remain on their guard," Archbishop Musonde said.
Archbishop Anthony Muheria of Nyeri called the Shakahola killings a serious violation of human rights.
"Religion cannot and should not be a reason for people to lose lives. It is also wrong to believe that people have to do exceptional things to get blessings," Archbishop Muheria told journalists April 24.
The police arrested cult leader Mackenzie April 14 over links to cultism. Human rights groups had tipped off the police that there was a group of people fasting themselves to death on the local ranch. When detectives raided the ranch, they found several emaciated people; four of them died on the way to the hospital.
Meanwhile, another cult leader in Kilifi also has been arrested over deaths in his church. Pastor Ezekiel Odero, a renowned televangelist in the country, was handed to authorities April 27, and his megachurch has been closed.
"What happened in Shakahola is the turning point of how Kenyans handle serious threats to security posed by religious extremists," said Kindiki Kithure, Kenya’s interior cabinet secretary.
Hussein Khalid, executive director of Haki Africa, a rights organization working in the coastal region, told AFP that it seemed the cult required children to starve first, followed by women and finally men.
He told the agency that 50% to 60% of the victims were children, whose bodies were found wrapped in cotton shrouds inside shallow pits.
"The horror we have seen over the last four days is traumatizing. Nothing prepares you for shallow mass graves of children," he said on April 25.
At least 39 people have been rescued from the ranch so far. However Mackenzie's tight grip on his followers was still visible, with survivors still demanding to be released to go meet Jesus.
Religious leaders in Kenya are now demanding that the country revisit an earlier debate on the regulation of religious groups and institutions.