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14 Mar, 2024 14:41

African state detains religious leader over child abuse claim

Sixteen unregistered graves, including those of infants, have been found on the church’s compound in Zimbabwe, according to police
African state detains religious leader over child abuse claim

Police in Zimbabwe say they have arrested a religious sect leader, Ishmael Chokurongerwa, at a farm about 34 kilometers (21 miles) north-west of the capital, Harare, where more than 250 children were allegedly used for forced labor.

The self-styled prophet was arrested alongside seven of his aides “for criminal activities which include abuse of minors,” the southern African nation’s police spokesperson, Paul Nyathi, said in a statement on Wednesday.

The authorities also discovered 16 unregistered graves, seven of them being those of infants, during the raid on the property in Nyabira on Tuesday, according to the statement.

“Police established that all children of school-going age did not attend formal education and were subjected to abuse as cheap labor, doing manual work in the name of being taught life skills,” Nyathi said.

Of the 251 children found, 246 had no birth certificates, he said, adding that more details regarding the case will be released “in due course as investigations unfold.”

Local media identified the religious group as Johane Masowe, a white-garment African church that has existed in Zimbabwe for decades.

On Thursday, state-run tabloid H-Metro reported that women and children evacuated from the church premises, which the believers described as “their promised land,” have been taken to the hospital for medical tests to determine whether some were sexually abused.

The news agency had earlier published a video on X (formerly Twitter) showing some of the female believers confronting the police and demanding the return of children who had been put in a waiting bus.

“Why are they taking our children? We are comfortable here. We don’t have a problem here,” one of the women in the video shouted.

One of Chokurongerwa’s aides also told the newspaper that “God forbids formal education because the lessons learned at such schools go against his dictates.”

“Our belief is not from scriptures, we got it directly from God who gave us rules on how we can enter heaven. God told us that it won’t rain if we send our children to school,” he said.

The Zimbabwean prophet’s arrest comes nearly a year after Kenyan police detained cult leader Paul Mackenzie for allegedly instructing followers to starve themselves to death so that they could “meet Jesus Christ before the end of the world.”

Last month, a court in the East African nation charged Mackenzie and 29 of his followers with committing acts of terror, child cruelty, and torture after 429 bodies, including those of 191 children, were exhumed in a forest near his church.