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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Caroline Kimeu in Nairobi

Kenyan cult leader accused of inciting children to starve to death

Paul Nthenge Mackenzie
Paul Nthenge Mackenzie’s arrest comes after 109 people have been confirmed dead, most of them children. Photograph: Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images

A Kenyan religious cult leader accused of inciting followers to starve to death is facing additional charges including terrorism and child trafficking.

Self-proclaimed pastor Paul Nthenge Mackenzie, who set up the Good News International Church in 2003, appeared in court in Malindi on Tuesday.

Nthenge is accused of inciting followers to starve to death “to meet Jesus”. A total of 109 people have so far been confirmed dead, most of them children.

The small courtroom in the seaside town on Malindi was packed with relatives of victims. Nthenge, dressed in a pink and black jacket and brown trousers, was brought in by about half a dozen police officers along with eight other defendants.

After a brief hearing, the case was moved to the high court in Kenya’s second-largest city of Mombasa, where the suspects will face charges potentially including terrorism, murder, kidnapping, cruelty towards children as well as other crimes.

Nthenge and his co-accused will reportedly be held in the Shimo la Tewa maximum prison, the only prison that can hold terror suspects, which is also known for holding some of the country’s most dangerous criminals.

Nthenge has been in crosshairs with law enforcement several times before, on charges such as radicalisation of children and incitement of Christians against other religious groups.

The country’s leaders have condemned Nthenge’s cult, likening his alleged activities with terrorism.

Locals in Malindi told the Guardian that in the years before the church closed down in 2019, Mackenzie’s teachings became more and more controversial. He turned vocal in his calls for people not to eat, or engage in what he termed “worldly” activities such as attending school, seeking medical services, and women’s use of cosmetics. His new messaging prompted pushback from the community and reportedly contributed to the closure of his church, but not before he had amassed a strong and loyal following.

Issa Ali, 16, a former Nthenge devotee, joined the Good News International church in 2014 when he was only eight years old. “I grew up believing that a pastor was someone trustworthy,” he said, his voice tinged with disbelief. “I believed him completely, and anything he would say I would do.”

He was one of 73 children Nthenge was accused of radicalising in a 2017 case that took four years to conclude, when charges against the preacher were finally dropped. The judicial service commission is reviewing whether there was any misconduct on the part of the judicial officers who handled the case.

Ali now claims that Nthenge pressured him and other children to testify in his favour, telling them that they would be “struck by heavenly fire” if they did not. After he began to have doubts about the pastor and tried to distance himself from the church, he claims he faced threats and got severely beaten by one of Nthenge’s bodyguards. He claims he only managed to leave after his father intervened following Nthenge’s schools’ scandal. Ali’s mother, however, remained a committed follower.

Ali says that Nthenge told his devotees, including his mother, to follow him to an 800-acre piece of land in Shakahola, a remote forest roughly 50 miles from Malindi town, where they would “go and wait for the Lord’s return”. A number obliged, and set up small villages in the woodlands, which Nthenge reportedly named after biblical cities, like Jerusalem, Sidon and Nazareth. With his loyal followers isolated, the practices he encouraged among his followers are alleged to have grown more macabre.

The recent discovery of dozens of bodies, heaped in shallow graves across the forest, have raised questions about how the preacher and his cult went undetected by authorities for so long. His cult, and the devastating deaths it appears to have left in its wake, have attracted both national and international attention, as investigations continue to prompt both shock and outrage.

The case has seen President William Ruto vow to intervene in Kenya’s religious movements, and thrown a spotlight on failed efforts to regulate unscrupulous churches and cults that have dabbled in criminality.

Another renowned church leader, Pastor Ezekiel Odero of the New Life Church, who was arrested last week on suspicion of mass-killing his followers, will remain in police custody for the next seven days.

The renowned televangelist has been transferred to a police station in Mombasa and will appear in court again on Thursday. His devotees – who believe the claims against him are a witch-hunt – gathered outside the Shanzu court ahead of his appearance in a show of support. Odero’s lawyers claimed the allegations were “a wicked attempt” to “scandalise” his name by linking him with Nthenge.

Suspicions around the pastor began to gain traction after police inquiries with a local morgue suggested that an unusually high number of bodies were being sent to the mortuary from the house of worship.

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