VIOLENT witch hunts are not a strange thing of the past – they exist today in many countries including neighbouring Papua New Guinea.
During Holy Week last April in PNG’s Southern Highlands province, three village women were accused of sorcery, strung-up and tortured by fire.
They were then forced to take responsibility for the death of a man who had a history of asthma and kidney ailments.
That episode was followed by the accusation of sorcery against another six women living in the same area.
Belief in sorcery is still widespread in some parts of PNG, with acts of violence, even murder, sometimes carried out against people, most often women, accused of having put a curse on someone in the community.
“Many think that there is no natural death and that every death must have a clear cause,” Mendi Diocese vicar general Fr Pius Hal said.
“Unfortunately, when this happens the poor and defenceless are blamed for the death of a person.”
Church leaders are speaking out about such false beliefs, and joined in to support the First International Day against Witchcraft and Sorcery Accusation on August 10.
In Mendi, in the Southern Highlands, 3000 people marched in peaceful solidarity, chanting “do not to kill innocent mothers, fathers and young women. Respect the dignity… especially our mothers and sisters”.
“Those who commit the atrocity of sorcery accusation violence are not interested in justice,” Mend Bishop Donald Lippert posted on Facebook.
“Most often they are motivated by greed, revenge and jealousy.
“Some use it to consolidate their power in a community.
“They are guilty of crimes against humanity.”
Bishop Lippert, who regularly visits many villages across the rugged Southern Highlands province, said the premise of sorcery accusation was that a person could kill another person by simply willing it – or performing some kind of occult ritual.
“No one has this power, not even the devil. If the devil (who hates life) had this power, all of humanity would be dead,” he posted.
Police Sergeant Jimmy Suaip, representing the local family and sexual violence unit, said the crimes committed against those accused of witchcraft often went unreported.
“Many women were hanged, tortured and killed in the remote villages of the province but relatives do not report to us in fear of retaliation,” he said.
In an attempt to stop witchcraft accusations, Fr Hal said he had discouraged the practice of consulting witch doctors when a person was dying or had just died, and urged communities to seek an autopsy report of the deceased from medically qualified and trained doctors.
“When bush doctors are hired, they do not need proof to blame innocent and vulnerable people, and this is an act of Satanism,” he said.
“Doctors are trained and qualified for such matters and can provide medical proof to confirm the cause of death.”
Bishop Lippert has appealed to people of faith to drive change within their communities.
“The more we are able to get people to encounter the power of the Risen Jesus, of the Risen Christ, the more they will be able to realise that (sorcery accusation-related violence) has no place,” he posted.
“Some have expressed hope that PNG would become a prosperous, black, Christian nation.
“Fact: This will never happen as long as our mothers are brutally tortured and murdered with impunity.”