You know how the long-ago witch hunts were stupid and hateful? What a relief those days are over.
Except they’re not. In many countries, people are still killed on suspicion of witchcraft. United Nations experts cautioned in 2009 that murders of women and children accused of sorcery were on the rise. Following are just a few of many examples from around the world.
1. Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia’s religious police department has an official Anti-Witchcraft Unit that it dispatches to catch sorcerers and break their spells. In 2007, the Saudis executed an accused sorcerer. A woman awaiting the death penalty for alleged witchcraft died in prison.
Like the New England witch hunters of yore, those in Saudi Arabia use magic as a convenient excuse to silence inconvenient people. Accusations of sorcery have been leveled against foreign women working as domestics for Saudi families who charge their employers with sexual assault, according to Saudi Arabia expert Christoph Wilcke.
This east African country killed approximately 600 elderly women on charges of witchcraft just two years ago. The Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life found a strong and pervasive belief in magic among Tanzanians. It sometimes leads to reverence rather than murder. One woman who claims to be a witch charges between $20 and $120 for services including medical cures and exorcisms — in a country where the average income is under two dollars a day.
Gambia’s dictator Yahya Jammeh rounds up, tortures and kills his citizens under the pretext of hunting for witches. Amnesty International estimates that at least six people died after Jammeh’s minions forced them to drink a mixture of unknown substances. Dozens more hallucinated and suffered severe and lingering pain. Those who survived suffered shame from the accusation in a country where people believe in and condemn witches.
Last year a mob burned an accused witch alive after a shaman said she killed a boy. Their faith in the shaman suggests that Nepalis believe that sorcery can be used for good, but the punishment for black magic is death. This year another mob beat a 45-year-old woman to death based on accusations that she cast a spell on a neighbor’s daughter. The Nepali government is not on board with killing witches: police arrested three women suspected of participating in the murder. In the past it sentenced men to 20 years in prison for killing a woman suspected of practicing black magic.
Last June, a primarily female crowd killed two women believed to have murdered several children through witchcraft. As in Nepal, police arrested people suspected of participating in the mob. Some Indian states have adopted laws banning violence against people suspected of witchcraft.
6. Papua New Guinea
A crowd tortured and murdered a young mother accused of killing a boy through sorcery. They burned her alive before a large audience, some of whom broke off to chase police away before they could intervene. The prime minister lamented that violence against women is increasing because of the popular “belief that sorcery kills,” despite a law that specifically prohibits burning suspected witches.
After burning a man’s house down and driving him from his village, locals tied him up and beheaded him for alleged witchcraft. While Ugandans kill some suspected witches, they pay others to help them with things like ensuring job security.
This is a small sampling of countries where natives believe in witchcraft and kill people for it. While the governments of some nations, including Saudi Arabia and Gambia, embrace this belief and use it to their own ends, others are working to end it. Either way, accusations of black magic empower people to eliminate individuals they dislike and to terrify others into conformity.
It all makes Halloween witch costumes a little less funny.