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Kenyan cultic pastor in ‘starvation massacre’ charged with murder and terrorism

Kenyan authorities continue to retrieve bodies from shallow graves April 27, 2023, on an 800-acre ranch in Kilifi County. On May 1, the official death toll had reached 110. All victims were followers of Paul Mackenzie, pastor of the Good News International Church, who told them to pray and fast to meet Jesus, and they starved to death. Most of the bodies found were the remains of children. Authorities suspect some may have been killed. (OSV News photo/Moses Mpuria, courtesy Sheshi Visual Arts)

NAIROBI, Kenya (OSV News) — Paul Mackenzie, the self-proclaimed Kenyan pastor who shocked the country and the world after he drove his followers into mass “starvation suicide,” has been charged with murder and terrorism.

On Jan. 17, Mackenzie, the leader and founder of the Good News International Church, and 30 of 94 of the co-accused were arraigned in the High Court in the coastal city of Malindi, Kenya. He faces charges of the murder of 429 people — most of them children — whose bodies were found buried in shallow graves in a ranch in the remote Shakahola forest in the coastal county of Kilifi.

As the pastor appeared in court, Bishop Willybard Kitogho Lagho of Malindi, Kenya, said the charging was a warning to the people and rogue clerics.

“It’s a wake-up call for the citizens, state and faith leaders to guard innocent Kenya from cartels using religion to achieve or cover economic and political ambitions,” Bishop Lagho told OSV News Jan. 17.

The revelation of the deaths in April shocked the bishops — along with their countrymen — prompting a strong condemnation and a warning for Kenyans to beware of cultic preachers.

“We wish to inform Kenyans that cultism is a dangerous phenomenon and they must remain (on) guard,” warned Archbishop Martin Kivuva Musonde of Mombasa, in whose jurisdiction Shakahola forest lies, during the peak of the graves’ discoveries.

The now-charged pastor had told his followers to pray and fast to meet Jesus and that the world would end on April 15, 2023. As a result, some followers sold their property, quit high-flying jobs or disposed of their earthly belongings and moved to the ranch to join Mackenzie.

Police had detained the pastor for 278 days in Shimo la Tewa Prison in Mombasa as the nine-month investigation was conducted.

Investigators were able to link Mackenzie and 30 others to the death of 238 children. The children’s bodies were retrieved from the shallow graves in the ranch. The pastor’s wife, Rhoda Maweu, and all his children are alive.

The pastor is serving a one-year sentence for distributing unrated films to support his sermons and for running a film studio without a valid license. Malindi’s resident magistrate issued the sentence in December.

Bishop Lagho said what was on trial was the quality of evidence that could nail suspects over crimes that lasted so long in plain sight of the same security systems.

“Does the list of suspects include office bearers whose inaction automatically qualifies them as accomplices over the same crime?” asked Bishop Lagho. “Where and how shall we draw the line between religion and crimes of such magnitude?”

Mackenzie, a televangelist, started his church in Malindi in 2003. Since then, he had been in trouble with the authorities for allegedly radicalizing children while demanding that they leave school. He also instructed his followers to leave their jobs, burn all their academic certificates and shun modern medicine in hospitals. He also demanded his members live on the ranch where he moved in 2015 to allegedly practice farming.

As the country watched in horror as investigators exhumed bodies, the government blamed churches for the death, but church leaders said it was a failure of the country’s justice system.

“We observe that there are government officials who over the years failed to take action when reports of death and murder in the Shakahola forest were made,” Archbishop Musonde, chairman of Kenya’s bishops’ conference, and Archbishop Timothy Ndambuki of the Africa Brotherhood Church, chairman of the National Council of Churches of Kenya, said in a joint statement on July 11, 2023. “It is therefore saddening that the government is instead focusing on blaming the church and religious institutions for the massacre.”

Director of Public Prosecutions Renson Ingonga said there was enough evidence to prosecute all the suspects held in connection with the deaths. He handed down 11 charges among the suspects including murder, manslaughter, assault, causing bodily harm, radicalization, terrorism, child cruelty and torture. The crimes were committed between January 2021 and September 2023.

The “starvation massacre” prompted calls for regulation of churches in the country, but the churches have resisted such a move, saying it will limit the people’s freedom of religion and worship, while stressing self-regulation.

Frederick Nzwili writes for OSV News from Nairobi, Kenya.

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