More than 40 bodies found at Kenya Christian cult graves site
Police began investigations amid reports that cult followers believed they would go to heaven if they starved to death.
Kenyan police have exhumed dozens of bodies from shallows 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.
Information provided by officials put the number of bodies exhumed so far as high as 47, according to media reports on Sunday.
“Today we have exhumed 26 more bodies and this brings the total number of bodies from that place to 47,” said the head of criminal investigations in Malindi, eastern Kenya, Charles Kamau.
He said the search was continuing not just for bodies but for survivors of the cult, some of whom are still refusing to eat.
Police launched their operation after the first bodies were discovered last week, and exhumations of bodies began on Friday from a 325-hectare (800-acre) area of forest at Shakahola, near Malindi in Kilifi county.
Kenya’s Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki announced he would be visiting the site on Tuesday and referred to the shocking discovery as the “Shakahola Forest Massacre” in a tweet on Sunday.
Malindi sub-county police chief John Kemboi said that more shallow graves have yet to be dug up on the land belonging to pastor and cult leader Paul Mackenzie, who was arrested on April 14 over links to cultism.
Kenya’s NTV channel has reported that Mackenzie has staged a hunger strike in his cell since his arrest last week.
Police said that 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.
Controversial Kilifi cult leader Paul Mackenzie has staged a hunger strike within police cells. https://t.co/MUqHQwsTpU
— NTV Kenya (@ntvkenya) April 22, 2023
Rescued but refusing to eat
One member of the church found by the authorities has refused to eat despite clearly being in physical distress, said Hussein Khalid, a member of Haki Africa, the rights group that tipped off the police to the actions of the church.
“The moment she was brought here, she absolutely refused to be administered with first aid and she closed her mouth firmly, basically refusing to be assisted, wanting to continue with her fasting until she dies,” Khalid told the AFP news agency.
Khalid said he believed some church members were still hiding from the authorities in the nearby forest.
“This signifies the magnitude of this issue, that clearly shows that there are still many who are still out there … and possibly dying every second that passes by.”
He called on the government to send soldiers to help with the search so the believers could be found before they starved themselves to death.
Ruth Dama Masha, executive committee member for social services in Kilifi county where the graves were discovered, also said that some members of the cult that were rescued from starvation had refused to eat.
“So we really have a lot to do and try to change their mindset because I feel some of them have been really radicalised,” she said.
Dama Masha said that the suspected cult leader had preyed on vulnerable people as most of the bodies exhumed so far were of women and children.
“If you look into those that have been exhumed, most are women and children. There’s a couple of men that have been exhumed but most are women and children,” she told Al Jazeera.
Interior Minister Kindiki said in his tweet on Sunday that the entire forest was sealed off by police and had been declared “a scene of crime”.
In his tweet, the minister said the incident was “the clearest abuse of the constitutionally enshrined human right to freedom of worship”.
“While the State remains respectful of religious freedom”, those responsible should face “severe punishment”, he said.
There would have to be “tighter regulation (including self-regulation) of every church, mosque, temple or synagogue going forward”, he added.
The unfolding Shakahola Forest Massacre is the clearest abuse of the constitutionally enshrined human right to freedom of worship. Prima facie, large- scale crimes under Kenyan law as well as international law have been committed. While the State remains respectful of religious…
— Kithure Kindiki (@KindikiKithure) April 23, 2023
Mackenzie had been arrested twice before, in 2019 and in March of this year, concerning 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.
Kenyan 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.