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ABC News
ABC News
Felicity Ripper with wires

What we know about the Kenyan starvation cult and the pastors allegedly behind the deaths

Self-proclaimed pastor Paul Nthenge Mackenzie is accused of inciting followers to starve to death "to meet Jesus". (Reuters: Stringer)

The bodies of more than 100 people have been found in a Kenyan forest since police began searching in mid-April for the remains of followers of a suspected Christian cult.

Mass graves in the Shakahola forest contained 101 bodies — mostly children — and a further eight people found alive later died. 

There are fears the death toll could rise, with Kenya's Interior Ministry saying more than 400 people are missing. 

What is the suspected cult? 

Kenyan authorities say the dead were members of the Good News International Church with some believed to be linked to the New Life Prayer Centre and Church. 

Self-proclaimed pastor Paul Nthenge Mackenzie, who set up the former in 2003, is accused of inciting his church members to starve to death.

It's alleged he predicted the world would end on April 15, and ordered his followers to kill themselves to be the first to go to heaven.

How did the mass deaths unfold? 

A former follower of Good News, Titus Katana, told AFP that there was a "fasting schedule" with a plan for children and single people to starve first before women and then men. 

"Mackenzie and his family would go last," he added, sketching out a timeline that appears to be supported by the fact that more than half the corpses found so far belonged to children, according to three sources close to the investigation.

Mr Katana said the devotees had sold  their properties, houses and factories "because they were coming to the wilderness to wait for Jesus in Shakahola forest".

When did police start finding bodies? 

Police acted on a tip off in April and entered the forest near the Indian Ocean coastal town of Malindi.

Forensic experts and homicide detectives carry the bodies of suspected members of the cult.  (Reuters)

Mr Mackenzie then turned himself into authorities on April 14. 

Since then, police have found bodies across 30 mass graves. 

Autopsies have confirmed starvation 

The first autopsies from Shakahola were carried out Monday on nine children and one woman.

They confirmed starvation as the cause of death, though some victims suffocated, the authorities said.

Has anyone been charged? 

Two pastors have now been charged in relation to the deaths — Mr Mackenzie and a prominent televangelist he has been linked to, Ezekiel Odero.

Mr Odero is the head of the New Life Prayer Centre and Church and was arrested last Thursday. 

Pastor Ezekiel Odero “is being processed to face criminal charges related to mass killing of his followers”, according to a statement by Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki. (AP: Maarufu Mohamed)

Mr Mackenzie has been accused of murder, kidnapping, cruelty towards and other crimes, in court documents viewed by AFP.

Prosecutors say he will also face terrorism charges at the high court in Kenya's second-largest city of Mombasa, after the case was mentioned Malindi on Tuesday. 

Mr Odero is also expected to face the high court, accused of murder, aiding suicide, abduction, radicalisation, crimes against humanity, child cruelty, fraud and money laundering.

Prosecutors have linked Mr Odero and Mr Mackenzie, saying in court documents that they share a "history of business investments" including a television station used to pass "radicalised messages" to followers.

What have the church leaders said? 

Mr Mackenzie, who is in police custody, has not commented publicly on the accusations against him nor been required to enter a plea to any criminal charge.

Two lawyers acting for him have declined to comment.

In his filing to the court, the other pastor Mr Odero said he wanted to "strongly disassociate" himself from Mr Mackenzie and disagreed with his teachings.

Cliff Ombeta, one of Mr Odero's lawyers, told reporters that there was no evidence connecting the pastor to the Shakahola discoveries.

"Evidence must be brought. It is a case where you must prove," he said.

Kenya's president vows to make changes

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

Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki said Mr Ruto will this week set up a task force on how to govern religious activities in Kenya, which is home to about 4,000 churches.

He said the government must "make sure we don't infringe on the sacred right of the freedom of worship, opinion and belief".

"But at the same time we don't allow criminals to misuse that right to hurt, kill, torture and starve people to death," he said. 

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