Police in Kenya on Monday reported they have recovered at least 58 bodies from forest land occupied by the Good News International Church, a cult whose members believed they could ascend to Heaven by starving themselves.
Authorities have rescued 29 survivors, but 112 remain missing so the authorities fear more bodies will be discovered in the cult’s mass graves. Some of the dead and missing are children.
“Forensic investigators, homicide detectives, other police officers as well as some government pathologists are here with us conducting investigations and carrying out exhumations,” Inspector General of Police Japhet Koome said in a nationally televised address.
Police were tipped off to the cult’s suicide plans by a human rights group called Haki Africa. A member of the group named Hussein Khalid told reporters that some Good News International Church followers are hiding from the authorities in the Shakahola forest of eastern Kenya, determined to complete the process of starving themselves. Haki Africa called on the Kenyan government to send in troops to assist the police with finding the remaining cultists before they kill themselves.
Khalid described one cult follower who fought to resist feeding after she was taken into custody.
“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,” he said.
“Enough security officers have been deployed and the entire 800-acre forest is sealed off and declared a scene of crime,” Kenyan Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki said on Monday, announcing that he would visit the scene on Tuesday.
“This horrendous blight on our conscience must lead not only to the most severe punishment of the perpetrator(s) of the atrocity on so many innocent souls, but tighter regulation (including self-regulation) of every church, mosque, temple or synagogue going forward,” Kindiki said.
Kenyan President William Ruto described Good News International Church leader Paul MacKenzie Nthenge as a “terrible criminal” who merely “pretends and postures as a pastor.”
Ruto vowed that his government will no longer tolerate “people who want to use religion to advance weird, unacceptable ideology in the Republic of Kenya that is causing unnecessary loss of life.” Kenya has long been plagued by intense, and sometimes dangerous, religious cults.
Nthenge, a self-proclaimed pastor and former televangelist, founded his sect in the tourist town of Malindi, but relocated it to a remote village in the drought-stricken forest in the summer of 2019, ostensibly because some of the members wanted to begin a “new life.” He was arrested in 2019 for instructing his followers to pull their children out of school and send them to his sermons instead.
Nthenge was arrested for the second time in March after two children died in his village under mysterious circumstances. The parents of the children were also arrested and charged with starving and suffocating their children on orders from Nthenge. Their bodies were found in a shallow grave near the village. A third child from the same family was recovered alive but suffering from severe malnutrition.
Nthenge, who has seven children himself, said that while he still has spiritual powers and sees Jesus on occasion, he was no longer a leader of his defunct church and merely owns some farmland in Shakahola.
“I am shocked about the accusations placed before me. I closed my Good News International church in Malindi in August 2019 and it’s important for people to accept that. I even sold the equipment there and the chairs as well. If a person used to worship with me then, they should do it on their own now and not by my name. Follow Christ and not Pastor Mackenzie,” he said after his arrest.
Village residents told a different story, accusing Nthenge of convincing them to abandon their old lives and bring their families to his remote village – actually three small villages, which he gave the Biblical names of Nazareth, Bethlehem, and Judea – where he preached suffering and starvation to get closer to Heaven.
Nthenge was released on bond but then arrested again in mid-April after police raided a property he owned in Malindi and found 15 emaciated followers who said they were starving themselves to death on their pastor’s orders. Four of them died after the police rescued them.
Police investigators proceeded to the Shakahola Forest village and began uncovering mass graves on Nthenge’s properties, along with dozens of shallow graves on his farm in Malindi. According to local media, one of the graves discovered so far contained three children and both of their parents, all apparently dead from starvation.
“When we are in this forest and come to an area where we see a big and tall cross, we know that means more than five people are buried there,” Victor Kaudo of the Malindi Social Justice Center told reporters.
Police officials said on Sunday that Nthenge himself has “gone on a hunger strike” and is “praying and fasting” while in custody.
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