NAIROBI: Kenya said on Thursday (Apr 27) that one of the country’s highest-profile pastors would face charges over the “mass killing” of his followers, just days after the discovery of dozens of bodies in mass graves linked to another church.
Ezekiel Odero, the head of the New Life Prayer Centre and Church, “has been arrested and is being processed to face criminal charges related to the mass killing of his followers”, Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki said in a statement.
“The said church has been shut down. The over 103 people who were holed up at the premises have been evacuated and will be required to record statements,” he added.
Odero’s arrest coincides with an investigation into Paul Mackenzie Nthenge, a cult leader accused of the deaths of more than 100 people, many of them children, in a forest near the coastal town of Malindi.
The former taxi driver is accused of telling followers of his Good News International Church that starvation offered a path to God and the horrific discoveries have shocked the majority Christian nation.
Another 11 bodies were exhumed on Thursday, taking to 109 the total number of dead, multiple Kenyan media reports said, quoting police.
Police have not linked the two cases, and the authorities have not provided further details about the allegations against Odero or his church, which is headquartered in Malindi.
Dressed in his signature all-white garb and clutching a Bible, the fisherman-turned-preacher smiled for the cameras as he was transferred from Malindi to police headquarters in the port city of Mombasa for questioning.
“GOD’S CHOSEN ONE”
A wealthy televangelist who has amassed a huge following – one of his churches south of Malindi can seat 40,000 people and his YouTube channel has half a million subscribers – Odero has described himself as “God’s chosen one”.
At his mega-rallies attended by tens of thousands of devotees, the charismatic preacher sells vials of “holy” water and scraps of cloth for 100 shillings (75 cents) he claims heal all manner of illnesses, including HIV.
Though casting himself as an ordinary man without political connections, Odero has shared the pulpit with prominent figures, including the wife of Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua in December in Nairobi.
The government had promised a crackdown on fringe religious groups after dozens of bodies were unearthed during a raid on a forested property near Malindi belonging to Nthenge.
Some of his followers were found alive but died en route to hospital, while others refused to eat or accept medical attention. So far, 39 people have been rescued.
More than half the bodies exhumed over the past week from mass graves in Shakahola forest were of children, and police fear the death toll could rise as their search widens.
At least 22 people have been arrested, and Nthenge is due to appear in court on May 2 along with several other suspects.
President William Ruto likened the cult leader to a terrorist and vowed the harshest possible punishment for him and anyone else extolling “weird, unacceptable ideology” in the East African country.
But past efforts to regulate the more than 4,000 churches registered in Kenya have failed, despite headline-grabbing incidents of cults and rogue pastors involved in serious crime.
Proposed measures to weed out bad actors – such as requiring pastors to be formally trained in theology – have been fiercely opposed and cast as violations of the constitutional guarantee for the division of church and state.
In the wake of what is being called the “Shakahola Forest Massacre”, questions are being raised about how Nthenge was able to continue preaching despite attracting police attention six years ago.
He was arrested in 2017 on charges of “radicalisation” after urging families not to send their children to school, saying education was not recognised by the Bible.
Nthenge was arrested again last month, according to local media, after two children starved to death in the custody of their parents. He was released on bail but later surrendered to police.