Kenya police exhume remains from suspected Christian cult graves

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Police began investigations amid reports that cult followers believed they would go to heaven if they starved to death.

Kenyan police have exhumed human remains from more than a dozen suspected graves in the east of the country amid an investigation into followers of a Christian cult who believed they would go to heaven if they starved themselves to death.

Police began exhuming bodies on Friday, said Charles Kamau, a detective in the town of Malindi near the Shakahola forest in Kilifi county, where police rescued 15 members of the Good News International Church last week, according to footage broadcast by Citizen TV.

Thirty-nine bodies have been found so far on land owned by a pastor in coastal Kenya who was arrested for telling his followers to fast to death.

Malindi sub-county police chief John Kemboi said that more shallow graves have yet to be dug up on the land belonging to pastor Paul Mackenzie, who was arrested on April 14 over links to cultism.

The total death toll is 43, because a further four people died after they and others were discovered starving at the church last week.

Police have asked a court to allow them to hold Mackenzie longer as investigations into the deaths of his followers continue.

On Saturday unnamed police sources told the AFP news agency that 21 bodies had been found and more could yet be uncovered.

“We have not even scratched the surface, which gives a clear indication that we are likely to get more bodies by the end of this exercise,” one police source said, referring to exhumations in the Shakahola forest outside the coastal town of Malindi.

Kenya’s NTV channel reported on Saturday that seven bodies had been removed from two of 32 suspected gravesites marked out by police.

Kenya police officers stand guard as forensic experts and homicide detectives exhume bodies of suspected members of a Christian cult. The officers are carrying weapons while off in the distance, the experts and detectives wear white personal protection equipment to carry out the exhumations.
Kenya police officers stand guard as forensic experts and homicide detectives exhume bodies of suspected members of the Good News International Church, on April 22, 2023 [Stringer/Reuters]

Mackenzie’s lawyer could not immediately be reached for comment. NTV reported that Mackenzie has staged a hunger strike in his cell since his arrest last week.

 

Police said the 15 rescued worshippers had been told to starve themselves to death so they could meet their creator. Four of them died before they reached hospital.

Titus Katana, a former church member, helped police identify the graves.

“We have shown the graves to the police, and in addition, we have saved the life of a woman who only had a few hours left, otherwise she’d also be dead,” Katana told Citizen TV.

Matthew Shipeta from Haki Africa, a human rights group, said he had seen at least 15 shallow graves in the forest.

Helen Mikali, the manager of a children’s home who was also helping investigators, said she had visited several nearby villages where parents and children had disappeared.

“Personally I have visited about 18 children’s graves,” Mikali told Citizen TV. She did not say how she knew the graves contained the remains of children.

The pastor has been arrested twice before, in 2019 and in March of this year, in relation to the deaths of children. Each time, he was released on bond, and both cases are still proceeding through the court.

Last month police arrested Mackenzie for encouraging the parents of two boys to starve and suffocate their children to death.

During a court appearance in that case, Mackenzie said he was unaware of the events that led to the deaths of the two boys, adding he was the target of hostile propaganda from some of his former colleagues, The Standard newspaper reported.

Local media reported that six of Mackenzie’s associates were also arrested.

Local politicians have urged the court not to release him this time, decrying the spread of cults in the Malindi area.

Cults are common in Kenya, which has a largely religious society.

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA AND NEWS AGENCIES

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