Growing concern over violent church exorcisms

London, England - Independent churches in the UK that perpetuate belief in demon possession and practice physical ‘exorcisms’ on adults and children have come under fire in the light of revelations in a high profile Old Bailey court case last week.

Sita Kisanga and her brother Sebastian Pinto, both practicing Christians, were convicted on Friday of aiding and abetting the abuse of an eight-year-old known only as Child B (in order to protect her identity). An aunt was found guilty of perpetuating child cruelty.

The child was brought to Britain from Angola by her aunt after her parents died. She was violently assaulted, cut and had hot chilli peppers rubbed in her eyes in order to ‘beat the devil out of her’.

Kisanga and Pinto belong to a Combat Spirituel church in East London, one of hundreds of pentecostal style churches supported by people from different cultural backgrounds, including those originating from west Africa.

Some fundamentalist pentecostal churches sanction aggressive forms of exorcism, though the pastor at the church in Dalston made it plain that he did not support what the couple had done in any way.

The belief of the trio was that Child B was ‘ndoki’ (in the Lingala language, a witch) and needed to be released by forcing evil spirits out of her.

The case resembles that of Victorian Climbie, also aged eight, who died of hypothermia and malnutrition in 2000 after being beaten, burnt and dumped in a bath inside a bin-liner.

One of those who gave evidence at the trial last week was Dr Richard Hoskins, visiting senior research fellow in theology and religious studies at King’s College, University of London.

Dr Hoskins is an adviser to police, social workers and the media on crime involving religious and cultural motivation. He said that in some Pentecostal and evangelical churches that emphasise possession and healing, practitioners gain influence through power, fear and money.

But Dr Hoskins also stressed that cases involving violence were rare. He called for independent investigation into such cases.

Experts and commentators have clashed over the phenomenon of exorcism and its prevalence in churches of African origin over the past few days.

Debbie Ariyo of Africans Unite Against Child Abuse says: “If a child is accused of being a witch and that accusation is endorsed by the church, it gives people leeway to perpetuate abuse… either directly or indirectly, the church is condoning abuse.”

But Antione Lokongo, editor of the newsletter Congo Panorama, believes that “this is part of our identity, part of our culture, but it’s being exploited for economic reasons”, particularly in the United Kingdom.

Other observers say that great harm is also done by the practice in Africa and elsewhere, not just in Christian churches but in religious institutions associated with traditional religions.

Amma Anane-Agyei, a specialist social worker, has told reporters that spirit-possession is a traditional African belief that “has been internalised by black African evangelical churches.”

However Dr Robert Beckford, a senior black theologian from the University of Birmingham, has warned against the stereotyping of Africans and African religion.

Dr Beckford, who has previously challenged the anti-gay stance of Nigeria’s Anglican Archbishop Akinola on a controversial Channel 4 TV programme, ‘God is Black’, said that belief in a spirit world also existed in white churches and in the Evangelical Alliance.

“Some of the media coverage reminds me of racist nineteenth century anthropological literature. West Africans are not the only people who believe in demonic possession”, he said on Sunday.

Dr Beckford and others stressed that violent exorcisms are quite contrary to the New Testament and should be condemned, whoever is practicing them.

The church of England and other traditional denominations in Britain and Ireland have advisers in this area, but stress that the use of exorcism is a rare, carefully regulated, wholly non-coercive and theologically sensitive practice.

Some Christians believe in demonic possession as an external, invasive force. Others see it as a malign spiritual power that gains control over people by psychological means.

St Augustine, one of the founding figures of orthodox Christianity, taught that the devil has no ontological status equivalent to God, and that evil is a negative reality that comes into being through the absence of good.

Western mission organisations have talked about the growth of African churches as a major sign of hope in the face of secularisation in the industrial and post-industrial world.

But some theologians with a particular interest in world Christianity are concerned that just as forms of Western Christianity have been absolutised and universalised in the past, there is a danger of the same thing happening to African faith forms.