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October 19, 2009

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African children accused of witchcraft murdered

THE nine-year-old boy lay on a bloodstained hospital sheet crawling with ants, staring at the wall.

His family pastor had accused him of being a witch, and his father then tried to force acid down his throat as an exorcism. It spilled as he struggled, burning away his face and eyes. The emaciated boy barely had strength left to whisper the name of the church that had denounced him - Mount Zion Lighthouse.

A month later, he died.

Nwanaokwo Edet was one of an increasing number of children in Africa accused of witchcraft by pastors and then tortured or killed, often by family members. Pastors were involved in half of 200 cases of "witch children" reviewed by the Associated Press, and 13 churches were named in the case files.

Some of the churches involved are renegade branches of international franchises. Parishioners take literally the Biblical exhortation, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live."

For their part, the families are often extremely poor, and sometimes even relieved to have one less mouth to feed. Poverty, conflict and poor education lay the foundation for accusations, which are then triggered by the death of a relative, the loss of a job or the denunciation of a pastor on the make, said Martin Dawes, a spokesman for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

"When communities come under pressure, they look for scapegoats. It plays into traditional beliefs that someone is responsible for a negative change ... and children are defenseless."

Witchcraft has taken on new life recently partly because of a rapid growth in evangelical Christianity and intense competition between churches. Some pastors try to establish their credentials by accusing children of witchcraft.

Campaigners against the practice say about 15,000 children have been accused in two of Nigeria's 36 states over the past decade and 1,000 have been murdered. In the past month alone, three Nigerian children accused of witchcraft were killed and another three were set on fire.

Nigeria is one of the heartlands of abuse, but UNICEF says tens of thousands of children have been targeted throughout Africa.

Nwanaokwo said he knew the pastor who accused him only as Pastor King. Mount Zion Lighthouse in Nigeria at first confirmed that a Pastor King worked for them, then denied that they knew any such person.


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