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Radio France Internationale
Radio France Internationale

Kenya's Ruto vows action as religious cult death toll continues to rise

Forensic experts carry the bodies of suspected members of a religious cult. © Reuters

Kenyan President William Ruto has vowed to crack down on "unacceptable" religious movements after police discovered the bodies of at least 58 people suspected of belonging to a Christian cult that practised starvation.

A major search is underway in a forest near Kenya's coastal town of Malindi where dozens of corpses were exhumed over the weekend, with authorities fearing more grisly discoveries could be made.

A full-scale investigation has been launched into the Good News International Church and its leader – named in court documents as Paul Mackenzie Nthenge – who preached that death by starvation delivered followers to God.

It is believed some of his devotees could still be hiding in the bush around Shakahola where the first bodies were discovered in shallow graves last week.

A 325-hectare area of woodland has been declared a crime scene as authorities seek to understand the true scale of what is being dubbed the "Shakahola Forest Massacre."

Speaking in Kiambu county neighbouring Nairobi on Monday, President Ruto said there was "no difference" between rogue pastors like Nthenge – who has been arrested and is awaiting trial – and terrorists.

"Terrorists use religion to advance their heinous acts. People like Mr Mackenzie are using religion to do exactly the same thing.

"I have instructed the agencies responsible to take up the matter and to get to the root cause and to the bottom of the activities of ... people who want to use religion to advance weird, unacceptable ideology," he said

This comes as teams clad in hazmat suits have been scouring the site for more burial pits and possible cult survivors.

Fears for followers

There are fears some members could be hiding from the authorities in the surrounding bushland and are at risk of death if not quickly found.

A number of people have already been rescued and taken to hospital in Malindi.

Hussein Khalid, a member of the rights group Haki Africa that tipped off the police to the actions of the church, said one of those rescued had refused to eat despite being in clear physical distress.

"The moment she was brought here, she absolutely refused to be administered with first aid and she closed her mouth firmly, basically refusing to be assisted, wanting to continue with her fasting until she dies," he explained.

Meanwhile, the Kenya Red Cross says at least 112 people have been reported missing to its support staff at Malindi.

Calls for tighter control of 'fringe denominations'

Nthenge turned himself in to police and was charged last month, according to local media, after two children starved to death in the custody of their parents.

He has since been released on bail of 100,000 Kenyan shillings, which is approximately €670.

The case is due to be heard again on 2 May.

The event has grabbed the nation's attention, prompting the government to flag the need for tighter control on fringe denominations in a country with a history of self-declared pastors and movements that become immersed in crime.

Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki, who announced he would visit the site on Tuesday, described the case as "the clearest abuse of the constitutionally enshrined human right to freedom of worship."

To date, attempts to regulate religion in the predominantly Christian country have been fiercely opposed. Such efforts are regarded as attempts to undermine constitutional guarantees of the separation between church and state.

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