Witch hunts did not end in Salem

Few people know as well as Leo Igwe just how deadly irrational beliefs can be.

The Nigerian human rights campaigner works to help Africa's ''witch children'' from abuse and murder at the hands of their own families and communities.

There are no reliable figures for the number of African children abused, abandoned or murdered as a result of witchcraft allegations each year, but Igwe says it is likely to be in the tens of thousands. Some are burned to death, some beaten to death, some lynched, some poisoned, some hacked to death with machetes. Others are abandoned in towns and cities where they face sexual abuse and trafficking. Police and other officials — who often share the beliefs of those doing the killing — do little to help.

''I can confirm that it is happening in Nigeria, (the Democratic Republic of) Congo, Angola and in other parts of Africa,'' Igwe says. ''Because it involves a vulnerable group it is difficult to track down.''

Igwe says much of the blame for Nigeria's current witch hysteria rests with Pentecostal churches that he says are exploiting traditional fears of witches in order to gain converts.

''Witchcraft is a traditional belief that has been used to target different segments of the population,'' he says. ''Witchcraft accusation predates the advent of Christianty and Islam to Africa. Christianity and Islam only reinforce it, give it justifications in today's world.

''The churches have been the main problem. They compete aggressively, looking for followers and money.''

One of the most notorious of the witch-hysteria churches is the fast-growing Liberty Gospel Church. Its founder and head, Helen Ukpabio, has written that ''If a child under the age of two screams in the night, cries and is always feverish with deteriorating health he or she is a servant of Satan''.

Igwe says members of Ukpabio's church bashed and robbed him at an anti-witch hunt conference he organised in 2009. Ukpabio also sued Igwe and other anti-witch hunt campaigners, alleging that their attempts to teach people that witches are a myth infringed her religious beliefs.

Igwe says he was detained and bashed by police in January after he rescued a girl accused of witchcraft from a man he says had been raping her. Despite the dangers, he remains committed to his work.

''I decided to devote my life and activism to fighting this menace, to enlightening my people with the hope that the light of reason and critical thinking will bring to an end these horrific killings and abuses,'' he says. ''I want witch hunts in Africa, like the witch hunt in Europe, to be a thing of the past — possibly in my lifetime.''

Igwe says it is possible, though ''very, very difficult', to get people to accept that there is no such thing as witches. ''It is beyond simple ignorance. It is also a matter of religious indoctrination and lack of critical thinking . . . it has to do with a culture that rewards blind faith, thoughtlessness and dogma.''

Igwe says African culture is in no way unique in having irrational beliefs to deeply entrenched. ''The only difference is that while the rest of the world are making conscious efforts to address, reduce and contain theirs, Africa is doing little or nothing to address them,'' he says.

Indeed, he says, Africans are not averse to adopting weird beliefs from other parts of the world: ''The belief in UFOs is peculiar to the Westerners but is making its way into African belief systems like every other Western fad.''

Igwe says readers who want to help African children, women and elderly people accused of witchcraft should lobby their governments to incorporate scientific education and critical thinking into development and aid programs in Africa, and lobby UN agencies such as UNICEF to do more to protect child victims. Those who want to help directly can donate to Stepping Stones Nigeria, a British-based charity that provides accommodation, education and advocacy for children accused of witchcraft.