I don’t care to criticize others for their religious beliefs. It’s not my business whether one worships Allah, Yahweh, Jesus, the pope, Mohammad, or Warren Jeffs. But when I see religious leaders spouting beliefs that directly, or indirectly, harm children, I speak up. Whether it is indicted Bishop Robert Finn or pro-spanking fundamentalist Christian preacher Michael Pearl, we must examine what role authority figures play in failing to protect children from abuse or, worse, inciting violence against children.
I just found out that Helen Ukpabio, a powerful fundamentalist Christian preacher from Nigeria, will soon be visiting Houston, Texas. I learned about this after reading a Huffington Post article written by Michael Mungai, a student at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and founder of Harambee Youth Kenya, a Nairobi organization that offers shelter to homeless boys.
Ukpabio plans to perform a 12-day “marathon deliverance,” beginning on March 14th, where she promises to relieve people of such problems as nightmares, “witchcraft attacks,” being possessed by a “mermaid spirit,” and poverty. Mungai says Americans should be troubled by the arrival of Ukpabio whom he calls a “notorious child-witch hunter.” Mungai goes on to say,
Ukpabio alleges that Satan constantly manifests himself in the bodies of children through demonic possession, turning them into witches and wizards. Condemned as witches, these children are splashed with acid, buried alive, immersed in fire or expelled from their communities.
Richard Wilson, writing for New.humanist.org.uk, points out that Africans have long believed in the power of evil spirits, but, as of late, that belief has been ramped up due to the “explosive rise of Pentecostal and Revivalist churches” which push the idea during services.
“The belief in witchcraft has thus become intertwined with Christianity,” writes Wilson.
Ukpabio is one of the most influential preachers behind the movement. Warning congregants about witchcraft is a mainstay of her sermons, as well as the subject of her book, Unveiling the Mysteries of Witchcraft, in which she tells readers how to identify a child witch.
“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,” Ukpabio writes.
The most damaging of Ukpabio’s propaganda, however, seems to be her 1999 dramatic film, End of the Wicked, in which child actors are seen being initiated in eerie rituals in which they are turned into drone-like witches and instructed to “blow up all electronic things in your home! Break plates, glasses, and then cause fever and failure to all other children in your home.”
The film is comical to watch—I liken it to the old and zany “Our Gang” films—but, as Wilson points out, many Nigerian children are, indeed, blamed for bad things that take place, while being accused of being tools of Satan. Once the accusations fly, these children are often ostracized or made to undergo violent, and sometimes fatal, exorcisms.
And such abuses extend beyond Africa’s borders. London has seen a rash of crimes involving child victims who had been accused of witchcraft and tortured. Currently, a couple is on trial in London for the brutal killing of a 15-year-old boy named Kristy Bamu. Both perpetrators were born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
It is no wonder that some partly blame these abuses on Ukpabio. End of the Wicked has been widely disseminated, and her Liberty Gospel Church has grown tremendously since she founded it in 1992. Headquartered in Calabar in Southern Nigeria, Liberty Gospel now has branches in other parts of Nigeria and overseas. A poster advertising Ukpabio’s Houston visit says she will be performing at a Liberty Gospel church.
According to Mungai, “She [Ukpabio] continues to enrich herself, through her books and remittances from exorcisms. In this, she joins the growing list of televangelists who are fleecing poor Africans all over the continent, promising ‘miracles’ for a fee.”
There is a determined movement to protect children from this kind of abuse and oppose Ukpabio’s teachings. The organization Stepping Stones Nigeria and the 2008 a documentary Saving Africa’s Witch Children have brought international attention to the issue of child witchcraft and Ukpabio’s fear mongering.
The Nigerian state of Akwa Ibom has passed a child rights law that prohibits people from accusing children of being witches. However, critics point out that government officials, themselves, believe in witchcraft and that children can be guilty of practicing it.
One Nigerian who has worked tirelessly to protect children from such abuse is Leo Igwe, a representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union. In an interview with Wilson, Igwe explains how he became frustrated when he took three “confessed child-witches” to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and was told by the director that the children would “contaminate” other children being kept at a childcare facility.
“I was outraged,” Igwe said. “Here is a ministry that tells the world, ‘We are taking care of these children.’ But the director did not want to accept these children because, in the course of being interviewed, they admitted that they were witches.”
Igwe believes that Akwa Ibom passed its child rights legislation largely due to international pressure and, he states, no one has been prosecuted or convicted for accusing children of witchcraft to date. Politicians are afraid that “if they dabble into it the witches will come after them,” says Igwe.
This won’t be Ukpabio’s first trip to the United States. She spoke in Houston in May of 2010. As reported by the New York Times, Ukpabio was “emphatic that children can be possessed, and that with her God-given ‘powers of discernment,’ she can spot such a child.” The Times reported that Ukpabio accused her critics of lying and that legislation criminalizing witch accusations infringes on her freedom of religion.
One can understand why Michael Mungai, in particular, wants to alert people to Ukpabio’s visit. He is a victim of abuse himself, having lived on the streets as a boy. He has worked with street children, many of whom came from abusive backgrounds. “It therefore disturbs me to see Ukpabio, hiding behind the immunity of religion, inflicting even worse torture on Nigerian children,” Mungai writes.
I join in Mungai’s appeal to Americans “to ensure that Ukpabio, with her hateful campaign against defenseless children, knows that she is not welcome in their country. She should be met with hostility similar to the protests against the Pope’s visit to the United Kingdom. While we should all respect the freedom of everyone to practice their religion, this respect should stop where it starts harming those around them.”
“Protesting against Ukpabio’s visit to America would be a step towards the right direction in giving a voice to her unfortunate little victims,” says Mungai.
CALLS TO ACTION:
Visit this Facebook page which protests Ukpabio’s visit.
Sign this petition demanding that President Obama deny Ukpabio entrance to the U.S.