Churches to attend ritual abuse summit

London, England - Representatives of African churches in the UK are to meet ministers and police and social services chiefs at a government summit to tackle ritualistic faith-related child abuse.

The meeting, hosted by the children's minister, Beverley Hughes, could see tighter entry rules for religious leaders from some African states seeking to travel to Britain, but is mainly aimed at identifying the extent of a little-researched issue.

The summit, scheduled for next week, follows the jailing of three people at the Old Bailey after being found guilty of involvement in physical abuse of an eight-year-old girl they accused of being a witch.

The court heard that the child, brought to Britain from Angola by her aunt, who claimed her parents had died, had been beaten, cut and had chilli peppers rubbed in her eyes. Sita Kisanga and her brother Sebastian Pinto, convicted along with the child's aunt, attended a Combat Spirituel church in Dalston, east London.

Ministers at the Department for Education and Skills, whose remit includes child protection, and the Home Office are concerned that, despite the high profile of the Kisanga case, little is known about the scale or nature of abuse linked to rituals such as exorcism. "At this stage we are working with an evidence gap," a DfES spokeswoman said. "We need to look at whether there is a significant problem, and if there is, how do we respond to it?"

The Metropolitan police have set up a scheme dubbed Project Violet which aims to detect and prevent abuse by engaging with African communities in the east London boroughs of Hackney and Newham.

A separate strategy group on cultural and religious abuse is being set up by the London Child Protection Committee, comprising police, social services, education and a range of other agencies, to support Project Violet. Hannah Miller, director of Croydon social services and a member of the new group, said that if the Kisanga case reflected a widespread problem there was a need to ensure social workers, police and teachers were trained to recognise the signs of abuse.

Richard Hoskins, an expert in African religions and cultural and religious crime, said he knew of several cases of attempted exorcisms in the UK.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that "faith healers" from African churches were entering the country. "There are clearly exorcisms taking place in this country," said Dr Hoskins. "I am helping the Metropolitan police and also social services with six or possibly seven cases UK-wide, and people say there are more."