Over 100 bodies of members of a Kenyan local church who starved to death on the orders of its pastor in order to make heaven have been recovered and over 40 others rescued.
Reports say the pastors, Paul Mackenzie Nthenge of Good News International Church, ordered his adherents to starve with a view to meeting Jesus but in the process of carrying out the spiritual exercise they died.
Many have however described him as a cult leader rather than a pastor.
The church is located in the expansive Shakahola Forest of Kilifi county in the East African country.
As of April 24, 26 new bodies had been exhumed by forensic experts and homicide detectives though the Red Cross Society reported that 112 people had been missing to a tracing and counselling desk it set up at a local hospital.
Nthenge was apprehended by the police on April 14 after a tip off based on suspicion that there were bodies (about 30) of his devotees in shallow graves.
The devotees had been living in some secluded settlements in a 324-hectares (800-acre) within the Shakahola Forest.
The police raided the compound and reportedly found 15 emaciated people, four of whom later died. Those still alive revealed that Nthenge instructed them to starve in order to meet Jesus.
Nthenge was charged to Malindi Law court on April 15 but the judge ordered that he be kept in detention while police take 14 days to conduct a probe into the matter. Reports indicate that the cult leader has refused to take food and water.
Kenyan National Police Chief, Japhet Koomie, confirmed that the pastor and 14 of his followers are in custody.
A retired Anglican bishop in Mombasa, Julius Kalu, who lives near Shakahola, recalled that when Mackenzie bought the land the cult leader said he was going to use it for farming.
He said, “When he bought the land in Shakahola, he told the people that he wanted to practice farming. It got us by surprise.
“I do not know where he got this kind of theology. Christian praye and fast, but they don’t do it until their death. I think we could not detect it because most of the victims are people from upcountry. The area is also sparsely populated.”
It’s akin to terrorism – President Ruto
Reacting to the incident, President William Ruto said, “what we are seeing…is akin to terrorism.”
The president, an evangelical Christian, said he has instructed the law enforcement agencies to investigate the matter as a criminal case not linked to any religion. Kenya comprises largely Christians. About 85 per cent of the 53 million Kenyans are Christians while Muslims are about 10 percent.
Interior Cabinet Secretary, Kithure Kindiki, said Nthege would be charged for several criminal charges including genocide and radicalisation.
The man Nthenge
Nthenge, according to the Kenyan media, is a dynamic and charismatic speaker who has written books on Christian living and spirituality. He is said to have founded the Good News International Church in Malindi, a coastal town, in 2003 but was ejected from the town two years later following a controversy over the teaching he was giving to children. Following his ejection from the town, he moved into the Shakahola Forest.
In 2017, the church was raided by the police during which 93 children were rescued. Nthenge was charged to court for allegedly radicalising and teaching children in an unregistered school. He denied the charges and was released on bond.
About four years later, precisely in 2019, Nthenge closed down the church and his digital TV station, stating that he had delivered the message God gave to him.
He had earlier in May of that year been charged to a magistrate’s court in Malindi for disobeying the law, religious incitement and indoctrinating children. He was also found with films which not only discouraged children from going to school but also incited them against other religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. Nthenge was freed on a Kenyan Shilling bond with an alternative of 500,000 cash bail.
Nthenge’s doctrine forbids his devotees from sending their children to school and that they burn all academic certificates. It also requires women not to shave their hair while the sick are forbidden from getting treatment from hospital. They are also required to live on his ranch.
Some politicians in the Malindi, a coastal city in South-eastern Kenya, area have reportedly said he should not be released this time.
Mother to Nthege, Anastasia Mwele, says her son has no case to answer, insisting he is not a killer.
Mrs Mwele, who lives in Furunzi village in Malindi, told NTV in an interview that her son stopped preaching in 2019.
“It is painful to see everyone calling my son a killer. If indeed he was a killer, he would have killed me first. Those accusing him are his former followers,” she said.
Mrs Mwele added, “I’m not defending Mackenzie but anyone that knows him knows he is a good person. During his preacher days, he taught what every preacher does, the gospel of Christ. How can a sane person be told to fast themselves to death and actually do that?”