The police launched an investigation after it was reported that followers of the cult believe that if they starve to death, they will go to heaven.
Kenyan police have dug up dozens of bodies from shallow graves in the country’s east amid an investigation into followers of a Christian cult that believed they would go to heaven if they starved to death.
Information provided by the authorities raised the number of bodies exhumed to 47, according to media reports on Sunday.
“Today we have exhumed 26 more bodies, bringing the total number of bodies from the site to 47,” said Charles Kamau, head of criminal investigations in Malindi, eastern Kenya.
He said the search continues for not only the bodies but also survivors of the cult, some of whom are still refusing to eat.
Police began their operation last week after the bodies were first discovered, and the exhumation of bodies from 325 hectares (800 acres) of forest in Shakahola, near Malindi in Kliffe County, began on Friday.
Kenya’s Home Affairs Minister Kiture Kindiki announced he would visit the site on Tuesday and referred to the shocking discovery in a tweet on Sunday as the “Shakahola forest massacre”.
Malindi sub-district police chief John Kemboi said shallow graves have yet to be dug on land belonging to pastor and cult leader Paul McKenzie, who was arrested on April 14 for alleged links to the cult.
Kenya’s NTV channel reported that Mackenzie has been on hunger strike in her cell since her arrest last week.
Police said the 15 rescued worshipers were told to starve to death so they could meet their creator. 4 of them died before reaching the hospital.
Controversial Kilifi cult leader Paul McKenzie has staged a hunger strike inside a police cell. https://t.co/MUqHQwsTpU
– NTV Kenya (@ntvkenya) April 22, 2023
Rescued but refused to eat
One member of the church found by the authorities refused to eat despite being clearly ill, said Hussain Khaled, a member of Haqi Afrika, a rights group that reported the church’s actions to the police.
“The moment she was brought here, she refused first aid, she firmly shut her mouth, basically refused to help and wanted to continue fasting until she died,” Khalid told AFP news agency.
Khalid said he believed some church members were still hiding from authorities in a nearby jungle.
“It shows the magnitude of this problem, and it clearly shows that many more are still out there … and could die with every second that passes.”
He called on the government to send soldiers to aid in the search so that the faithful could be found before they starved to death.
Ruth Dama Masha, executive committee member for social services in Kilifi County, where the graves were found, said some cult members who were rescued from starvation refused to eat.
“So we really have to do a lot and try to change their mindset because I feel like some of them are really radicalized,” he said.
Dama Masha said the suspected cult leader preyed on vulnerable people as most of the bodies exhumed so far were those of women and children.
“If you look at the people who have been dug up, most of them are women and children. There are a couple of men who have been dug up, but most are women and children,” he told Al Jazeera.
Home Minister Kindiki said in a tweet on Sunday that the entire forest has been sealed off by the police and has been declared a “crime scene”.
In his tweet, the minister called the incident “a clear abuse of the constitutional human right to freedom of worship”.
“While the government respects religious freedom, those responsible should face “severe punishment”, he said.
“Every church, mosque, temple or synagogue going forward must have strict controls (including self-control),” he added.
The Shakahola massacre is the most flagrant abuse of the constitutional human right to freedom of worship. Prima facie, a large number of crimes have been committed under Kenyan law and international law. When the government respects religion…
— Kithure Kindiki (@KindikiKithure) April 23, 2023
Mackenzie was arrested twice in 2019 and in March this year in connection with the deaths of children. Each time, he was released on bail, and both cases are still pending in court.
Last month, police arrested Mackenzie for starving and suffocating the parents of two boys.
Appearing in court in that case, Mackenzie said she did not know the events leading to the two boys’ deaths and said she was the target of a hostile campaign from some of her former colleagues, The Standard newspaper reported.
Kenyan media reported that six of Mackenzie’s accomplices were arrested.
Local politicians urged the court not to release him this time, condemning the spread of cultism in Malindi region.
Religious practices are common in Kenya.