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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

Time to stop religious cults from unleashing future massacres

With less than five media mentions of the Shakahola over the last month, it is safe to say that national amnesia and possibly, trauma has kicked in and the public have moved on. Appearing before the Mungatana led Senate Ad hoc Committee this week, I found myself reflecting how we can stop religious cults from unleashing future massacres.

According to the forensic and investigative teams, the bodies of 338 persons of faith had been recovered by 27 June. One third of these bodies are infants and children. At least twenty bodies are in such an emaciated state they will remain nameless. Hundreds who have reported missing remain unaccounted two months after this macabre story broke.

Responding to national and international horror, the state established three taskforces to investigate Shakahola and the broader danger religious extremism poses Kenyans. The Senate Ad hoc committee has established there may be over 40,000 religious organisations. They range from closed cults, one person churches, and pyramid business schemes. Youthful activist Moses Gichuho would remind us, letters matter and most are religious dealers not religious leaders.

While most have moved on, the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, Law Society of Kenya, Haki Africa, and others continue to document mass autopsies, the arrests and detention of survivors and perpetrators. They report no evidence of missing organs or organ trafficking syndicate. However, the post-mortems into the cause of death found hundreds were starved, suffocated, strangulated, or beaten to death. Shakahola is, simply, Kenya’s worst massacre perpetrated during a period of peace and by religious leaders.

We must not tire of demanding accountability and consequences for those commanding officers and officers charged with an obligation to protect Kenyans from the violence perpetrated under the constitutional freedom to conscience and worship. Five years on, why hasn’t the Attorney General operationalised National Coroners Service Act and introduced an independent and well-resourced forensic Office of the Coroner? If tens of bodies floating down Yala River, Siaya county and the hundreds of bodies found in Shakahola, Malindi, do not create a sense of urgency, what will?

The Interior Ministry taskforces and Senate committee must avoid the predictable knee-jerk to violate the freedom of conscience and religion enshrined in Article 32 of the constitution. Rather than criminalising religious organisations, this moment must trigger greater self-reflection, new self-regulation guidelines as well as state regulation measures.

Extremist religious doctrine and disinformation that fuels rising sexism, ageism, ableism, classism, and heterosexism must be confronted with public education rooted in our national values. Well established measures to stop organised crimes and Islamic terrorism must be applied to regulate and track resource flows promoting the Christian prosperity gospel.

Those that planned and executed mass suicide and multiple killings violated several constitutional freedoms including the right to life (Art.26), dignity (28), freedom and security of the person (29), privacy (31), freedom of media (34) and economic and social rights (43). The camp had appointed marshals to block dissenting voices and prevent people from escaping, accessing food, health, and education.

Aside from the criminal responsibility, we must also address the national mental health emergency and regulation of religious organisations. Most of those rescued from Paul Mackenzie’s Good New International Church are mentally unwell. A survivor centred approach embedded in the Mental Health Act (2022) rather than the penal code must be applied. It is time we repealed Section 226 and decriminalise suicide in line with the rest of the world. Persons who attempt to kill themselves are persons in economic or social distress. Psychiatric assessment and medical care not prison is what mentally ill and self-destructive people need.

Mass media houses can introduce false prophecy broadcasting guidelines. State and human rights can introduce anti-indoctrination reporting helplines. Religious organisations can absolve themselves of public criticism by strengthening public understanding of their doctrine of faith, financial reporting transparency, and training and certification guidelines for religious leaders.

If Shakahola does not activate bold action, we should prepare for the next one around the corner.

This opinion was also published in the Saturday Standard and by Amnesty International Kenya on 8 July 2023


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