When a family in Congo suffers an illness or poverty, the blame is often laid on one of the children, who may wind up accused of sorcery. If that happens, other truly horrible things may follow.
LUBUMBASHI - In the Democratic Republic of Congo, when a child is disobedient or has problems, when a family member falls ill or has a bout of bad luck, sorcery is often seen as the obvious explanation. The children accused of witchcraft either end up on the streets, or are beaten and tortured by the clergymen who practice exorcisms for cash.
A group of pastors from the southeastern city of Lubumbashi has decided to denounce this terrible practice, and to stand up for the thousands of so-called "sorcerer" children.
Thomas Kalomba is a Presbyterian pastor in Lubumbashi. He hands out flyers where it is written in large print: "Zacky is not a sorcerer, he has the right to our protection." He has also printed t-shirts bearing the message: "You don't need to be a wizard to protect a child."
Kalomba and his colleagues have launched a campaign to raise awareness about the plight of children accused of witchcraft. He's been spreading the word in church and all around his neighborhood.
For the past two years, pastors and priests have been organizing religious conferences in Lubumbashi to denounce the treatment of these children by unscrupulous clergymen. "We call for the respect of pastoral ethics," explains pastor Mbenga Thithy, head of Lubumbashi's Church of Awakening. "Whatever may be wrong with a child, a man of religion has the duty to bring him to God, not to exploit him for cash."
"Burned by God's fire"
Kalomba and his colleagues can't fathom the fact that other members of the clergy could "morally and physically torture children under the pretext of exorcizing them." Some of these children spend days, weeks or even months at the mercy of pastors who want to "free them from their demons." Others are simply thrown out into the street.
Mrs. Kibali, a nurse at the Kisanga health center, remembers: "We took in a 10-year-old girl. Her entire face had been burned by hot water that a pastor splashed on her face every night," she says. The pastor claimed that "the girl was burned by God's fire" before fleeing from the police.
Eighteen-year-old André Munga has been living in a foster home for the past two years. Accused by a pastor of being responsible for the illness that killed his father, Munga was thrown out by his family.
"We found this boy in the streets, struggling to survive, and placed him in foster care. We have identified his family and are fighting for him to be able to go home," says Monzambe Jean, Pastor at the Congo Church of Christ and a children rights advocate.
The religious leaders closely monitor Munga's progression and have also sent him back to school, which, little by little, is changing his biological father's attitude. "He knows that I study well and has even started sending me money for school fees and uniforms," says Munga.
"We preach the Bible and advocate children's rights," says Mozambe. For him, the Church is a place that embodies and transmits moral values. And, as such, it has to encourage followers to protect the rights of children, including those that are accused of witchcraft.
He is proud of the results his group has obtained after only two years. "We've managed to bring home 205 children accused of witchcraft and who were forced to live on the streets," he says. "That's a big deal!"
He believes that the thousands of children accused of sorcery are society's scapegoats. Struck with unemployment, death, accidents or poverty, families blame these children --with the help of unscrupulous pastors-- for their troubles.
"Hence," he says, "the need for this campaign to encourage members of the clergy to protect children, parents to be more responsible, children to speak out, and political and judicial authorities to enforce the law and punish anybody who mistreats children."
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