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Sunday, 13 November 2011

Witch Children and Christianity

Published in the Sunday Times, Malawi 13 November 2011: p. 6

Witch Children and Christianity

In our African continent we find more and more Pentecostal, Charismatic and independent churches who stigmatize children and other vulnerable groups in society as witches.  These are accused of being the cause of all the misfortunes that befall their families and communities.

The self-proclaimed spiritual experts specialise in finding witches by using prophecy, discernment and other gifts of the Spirit as tools of divination.  They call themselves prophets and apostles, pastors or bishops even though most of them have had hardly or no theological education at all.  The children who are ‘sniffed out’ as witches are exposed to abuse, ostracism, torture and murder. The more 'lucky' ones are exorcised of their demons in a heavy handed manner which often includes beatings, starvation and imprisonment until the families of the accused pay the high fees demanded by the spiritual experts.

Some of the spiritual experts operating in Malawi do not demand fees but try to build a name for themselves as a miracle worker or powerful man or woman of God.  Indirectly there is still monetary gain as a powerful reputation translates to more followers and therefore higher financial contributions in form of tithes and offerings.  There are also monetary rewards offered by family members whose children have been 'treated'. However, even the children who have been subjected to exorcism or cleansing ceremonies still carry a stigma and continue to be viewed with suspicion.  This translates into emotional neglect if not outright psychological and physical abuse. Children whose parents are still alive may be taken back to the prophet over and over again for exorcisms but children who are orphaned are often chased away from their host family after having been branded witches.  Many of them ending up as street children, become victims of trafficking or get trapped in prostitution.

From a theological point of view, regardless of Church affiliation or tradition we can only view the belief in children being witches as hetero-orthodox.  The core of the teaching of Jesus Christ is love, love from God for humankind (John 3:16) and love for God which must be demonstrated by practical caring love for one-another, including for those who turn against us as our enemies. Any teaching that negates, undermines or deviates from this and results in stigmatization, psychological or physical abuse is therefore a heresy. 

If one insists on using the words demonic or Satanic as is common in some Christian circles then we should consider that in the Bible Satan is described as the father of lies and as a murderer from the beginning.  Any so-called Christian teaching which results in false accusations, stigmatization, abuse and violence is then not Christian but Satanic.  Those who consider themselves spiritual leaders should consider that the Bible teaches that the true evidence of the presence of the Spirit of Christ is shown in genuine caring love (agape) which among other things results in joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).

We believe that Christians in Africa should be at the forefront in addressing the false beliefs that hurt our children.  So far in Malawi we have started a safe house for children accused of witchcraft and conducted about 40 workshops for church leaders as well as a consultation for CBOs and NGOs.  We are also joining hands with Civil society, the government and religious bodies to form a national coalition against witchcraft stigmatization.

Unfortunately funding constraints prevent us from taking part in international conferences but we hope that our contribution will encourage other Christian organizations, churches and individuals to play an active role in addressing the issue of stigmatizing children as witches in Africa.

 Rev. Aubrey J. Goliat, Mr. Frank B. Phiri, Mrs. Emmie Chanika and Rev. Dr. Erwin van der Meer

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