Woman's death raises concern about Angolan sects

Luanda, Angola - An Angolan woman died of an unknown illness after being forcibly held for months by a religious sect in the capital Luanda, state radio reported on Tuesday, raising concern about the rapid spread of such sects.

Ana Bengue, 28, a sect member, was confined to bed for weeks after falling ill at a house believed to belong to the sect and was not allowed to leave the building, her uncle, Neves Rodrigues, told Radio Nacional de Angola.

A Luanda priest said the sect rejected orthodox medical treatment and had prevented Bengue from seeking medical help despite requests from her family.

"What surprised me was that the church missionaries only informed us about her death after she had been buried (last week)," said Rodrigues.

Police were not immediately available for comment, and the authorities have not disclosed the name of the sect.

The report of Bengue's death underlined the mounting concern about the spread of such sects, which combine traditional African beliefs with elements of Christianity, among people recovering from a long civil war and lacking education and jobs.

Last month police rescued 40 children who had been held in a house by two religious sects after being accused by their own families of witchcraft. The sects' leaders were later arrested.

Authorities said the children, aged between one month and 15 years, had been been physically and psychologically abused by sect members. The children were sent to a Luanda orphanage.

Many Angolans, plagued by poverty and little or no access to education, seek guidance and help from religious sects or people who claim to have special powers.

Jonas Savimbi, who led the opposition party UNITA in its long war against the government, is said to have fought beside a woman whose magic he believed would protect him from enemy fire.

Rights groups say civil society and police should do more to stop the spread of illegal religious groups in a country still scarred by the civil war that ended in 2002.

"It is society's responsibility to report these cases to the police so that those responsible are severely punished," Fatima Viegas, director of the National Institute for Religion in Luanda, told Reuters.

"The number of religious sects is not only rising it is already widespread," said Luis Conjimbe, a priest in Luanda. "The authorities have the responsibility to end this kind of practice."

Almost 60 percent of the population of Angola, a former Portuguese colony, claim to be Catholic, but numerous churches have sprung up in recent years, preaching a mixture of traditional African beliefs and evangelical Christianity.

Today there are 83 legal religious institutions in Angola and an estimated 900 waiting to be legalised, Viegas said.