By Alex Hobbs
While witchcraft may seem like a curious relic of a less scientific era, for millions across the globe, the spirit realm continues to play a significant role in day-to-day life—and sometimes with fatal consequences.
“Obviously, the problem here is a belief in witchcraft, not actual witchcraft,” said Gary Foxcroft, director of the Witchcraft and Human Rights Network (WHRIN), whose organization has documented 400 cases of human rights violations resulting from witch persecution this year. Foxcroft described witchcraft as “any practice where belief in the supernatural impacts on people’s lives.” Such persecution often takes the form of communities or families fearing that certain individuals have powers that allow them to harm others in the physical world through interaction with the spirit world. For example, in Papua New Guinea, two women were beheaded by a mob in April of this year for allegedly killing a local man with sorcery.
Witch persecution can also take the form of targeting those believed to possess magical properties, such as twins and people with albinism, whose body parts supposedly bring prosperity and success when mixed in potions. According to the UN, there have been over 200 reported murders of albinos in sub-Saharan Africa for ritual purposes. Of the 72 reported attacks in Tanzania since 2000, only 5 have been prosecuted. The UN report states that, “Some even believe that the witchcraft ritual is more powerful if the victim screams during the amputation, so body parts are often cut from live victims, especially children.”
The targets of witch hunting are usually the most marginalized members of society, namely, women and children. “Rarely are middle class men the victims,” said Foxcroft. Because witch persecution often involves finding a scapegoat for an unexplained event, such as the sudden illness of a relative or the death of livestock, those less able to speak up for or defend themselves are blamed and targeted. According to Foxcroft, anti-witchcraft fervor can be triggered by “any breakdown in the social system. For example poverty or civil war,” or other similar situations where people feel powerless and imperiled by forces they can’t control.
In recent years, Christianity has played a growing role in the witch hunting culture. “Suffer not a witch” (Exodus 22:18) the Bible warns, and advises adherents to throw out he who “casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead” (Deuteronomy 18:11). Charismatic revivalist preachers throughout sub-Saharan Africa take this message to heart, performing exorcisms on their congregants to drive out evil demons and devils inhabiting the possessed. In one instance, a 9-year-old girl in Cameroon died during her exorcism. CNN reported that in response, Cameroon’s president ordered the closure of all Pentecostal churches in August of this year, a move designed to protect citizens from “fake miracles” and violence in the name of Jesus.
Pentecostalism and Witch Persecution
Pentecostalism is a Christian evangelical movement that emphasis a literal interpretation of the Bible, direct communion with God, and salvation through baptism and faith. American Pentecostal missionaries arrived in Africa in the 1980’s looking to save African souls, and they quickly made inroads in African communities. A 2006 Pew Foundation survey reported that there were about 107 million Pentecostals in Africa, or 12% of the continent’s total population—and growing.
Belief in the spirit world, witches, and witchcraft has always played an important part in traditional African beliefs. A UNICEF report on witch persecution in Africa noted that, “Pentecostalism takes all these imaginary African characters seriously and gives them a new status through assimilation with Satan… By manipulating the forces of good to combat the forces of evil, Pentecostalism operates essentially in the universe of demonization.”
A key belief of Pentecostalism is the ever-present conflict between good and evil, or understanding the conflict between Christ and the Devil. The UNICEF report notes, “churches…play an important role in the diffusion and legitimization of fears related to witchcraft, and in particular, child witches. The pastor‐prophet is an important figure in the process of accusing children of witchcraft, by effectively validating the presence of a “witchcraft spirit”. Pentecostals, for example, present their faith as a form of divine amour against witchcraft, and they participate actively in the fight against Evil that is incarnated through witchcraft.”
By taking traditional beliefs in witchcraft already present in African societies, Pentecostalism has given it a facelift, incorporating Christian elements and thus legitimizing it in the eyes of mainstream churches. According to Leo Igwe, a Nigerian human rights advocate who has played leading roles in the Nigerian Humanist Movement, Atheist Alliance International, and the Center For Inquiry, and who was attacked for speaking out against the practices of Pentecostal churches, this is a dangerous trend, one that violates the human rights of thousands of individuals. Igwe said it was difficult to say exactly how many victims of belief in superstition there are, but his own estimation was that “each year in the tens of thousands.” Because so many of the victims are themselves members of Pentecostal churches who believe that they are possessed by spirits, or children of members too young to fully grasp the concept, it is difficult to produce an accurate number. “A lot of maltreatment takes place behind walls,” said Igwe.
Not just an African problem
Belief in witchcraft, however, is not limited to Pentecostal Christians, nor is it found exclusively in the developing world. It can and does persist amongst immigrant communities living in Europe and the United States. For instance, in 2010, in London, a 15-year-old boy was killed by his sister and her boyfriend from the Central African Republic. The couple believed the boy and his siblings were witches and tortured them for days to drive out the spirits, ultimately bludgeoning the boy to death. Similarly, in 2012, in Birmingham, England, a Pakistani woman was killed by her family who believed she had been possessed by evil spirits called Jinn.
“[Clearly] this is not just a developing world problem,” said Mr. Foxcroft of WHRIN. In many cases, witch persecution can be found “right on your doorstep.”
Alex Hobbs is an editorial associate at the World Policy Journal
[Photo Credit worldette]