Police launched investigations amid reports that followers of the sect believed they would go to heaven if they died of starvation.
Kenyan police have exhumed dozens of bodies from shallow graves in the east of the country, amid an investigation into a Christian sect that believes they will go to heaven if they starve themselves to death.
Information provided by officials put the number of bodies exhumed so far at 47, according to media reports on Sunday.
“Today we have exhumed another 26 bodies, bringing the total number of bodies from that location to 47,” said Charles Kamau, head of criminal investigations in Malindi, eastern Kenya.
He said the search continues not only for bodies but for survivors of the sect, some of whom still refuse to eat.
Police launched their operation after discovering the first bodies last week, and began exhumations on Friday from a 325-hectare (800-acre) forested area in Chakula, near Malindi in Kilifi District.
Kenya’s Home Minister Kethuri Kindiki announced he would visit the site on Tuesday and referred to the shocking discovery as the “Chakhula Forest massacre” in a tweet on Sunday.
Malindi County Police Chief John Kemboi said more shallow graves had yet to be dug in the land owned by pastor and cult leader Paul McKenzie, who was arrested on April 14 over his links to the cult.
Kenya’s NTV reported that Mackenzie has been on a hunger strike in his cell since his arrest last week.
Police said 15 of the rescued devotees were told to starve themselves to death so they could meet their creator. Four of them died before they reached the hospital.
Controversial Killife sect leader Paul Mackenzie has begun a hunger strike in police cells. https://t.co/MUqHQwsTpU
– NTV Kenya (@ntvkenya) April 22, 2023
They were rescued, but refused to eat
Hussein Khaled, a member of Haki Africa, a rights group that reported the church’s actions to police, said one church member found by authorities refused to eat even though he was in physical distress.
“The moment she was brought here, she categorically refused to receive first aid, and firmly closed her mouth, basically refusing to get help, and wanted to continue her fast until her death,” Khaled told Agence France-Presse.
Khaled said he believes some members of the church are still hiding from the authorities in the nearby woods.
“It shows the scale of this problem, and it clearly shows that there are still many more out there who are still out there…and possibly dying every second that passes.”
He called on the government to send soldiers to assist in the search so that believers could be found before they starved to death.
Ruth Dama Macha, a member of the Kilifi County Social Services Executive Committee where the graves were discovered, said some of the sect’s rescued from starvation refused to eat.
“So we really have a lot to do and try to change the way they think because I feel like some of them are really radicalized,” she said.
Dama Macha said the suspected cult leader preyed on vulnerable people because most of the bodies exhumed so far were of women and children.
“If you look at the ones that have been exhumed, they are mostly women and children. Two men have been exhumed but most of them are women and children,” she told Al Jazeera.
Interior Minister Kennedy said in a tweet on Sunday that the entire forest had been sealed off by police and declared a “crime scene”.
The minister said in a tweet that the incident was “the clearest violation of the human right enshrined in the constitution to freedom of worship.”
“While the state respects religious freedom,” he said, those responsible for it should face “severe punishment.”
He added that there should be “stricter regulation (including self-regulation) of every church, mosque, temple or synagogue in the future.”
The unfolding Chakhula Forest massacre is the clearest violation of the constitutionally enshrined human right to freedom of worship. At first glance, widespread crimes have been committed under Kenyan law as well as international law. While the state respects religious …
-Kihure Kindiki (KindikiKithure) April 23, 2023
McKenzie had been arrested twice before, in 2019 and March this year, in connection with the deaths of children. Each time, he was released on bail, and both cases are still pending in court.
Last month, police arrested MacKenzie for encouraging the parents of two boys to starve and choke their children to death.
During his court appearance in that case, Mackenzie said he was unaware of the events that led to the deaths of the two boys, adding that he had been the target of hostile propaganda from some of his former colleagues, the Standard reported.
Kenyan media reported that six of McKenzie’s associates had been arrested.
Local politicians urged the court not to release him this time, and denounced the spread of caste in the Malindi region.
Cults are common in Kenya, which has a largely religious society.
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