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Children account for majority of Kenyan cult deaths, interior minister says

2023-04-28T17:19:26Z

Volunteers assist forensic experts and homicide detectives from the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI), to exhume bodies of suspected followers of a Christian cult named as Good News International Church, whose members believed they would go to heaven if they starved themselves to death, in Shakahola forest of Kilifi county, Kenya April 25, 2023. REUTERS/Joseph Okanga

Children account for most of the 109 bodies so far recovered in mass graves linked to a cult in Kenya, the interior minister said on Friday, the latest details in a case that has shocked the country and prompted calls for tighter regulation of religious fringe groups.

Followers of the Good News International Church near the coastal town of Malindi reportedly believed they would go to heaven if they starved themselves.

“The reports we are getting are that many of the recoveries are of children… Children are the majority, followed by women. Men are fewer,” minister Kithure Kindiki told reporters.

“The preliminary reports we are getting is that some of the victims may not have died of starvation. There were other methods used, including hurting them, just by physical and preliminary observations,” Kindiki said.

Kindiki, who called those behind the deaths terrorists, also announced the launch of an air search over the Shakahola forest, where the bodies were found and are being exhumed. He said autopsies on the recovered bodies would start on Monday.

The government would be announcing new measures governing churches next week, he said.

The leader of the Good News International Church, Paul Mackenzie, has been in police custody since April 14. Kenyan media say he is accused of persuading his followers to starve themselves to death.

Mackenzie has made no public comment. Reuters spoke to two lawyers acting for Mackenzie, but both declined to comment on the accusations against him.

On Thursday, a pastor at a separate nearby church, Ezekiel Odero, was arrested. He appeared in court in the coastal city of Mombasa on Friday, but was not charged and was ordered to reappear on Tuesday. He remained in police custody.

A police document presented in court and seen by Reuters said police have established that several deaths were recorded at Odero’s New Life Ministry between 2022 and 2023 and that those bodies may have been moved to Shakahola forest.

Police are investigating Odero for crimes including murder, aiding suicide, abduction and child cruelty, the document said.

Odero’s lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment. On Thursday, he did not respond to questions from journalists as he was escorted into a police station.