A Senate Committee’s report creates serious risks for religious liberty after the tragedy of Good News International Church.
by Massimo Introvigne
We have seen this scheme at work before. A religious organization or its leader commit crimes. Media that did not even know the name of the organization before the incident start screaming that “cults,” if not religion in general, should be more tightly controlled. Governments, always happy to increase their control on civil society, quickly oblige, and measures limiting religious liberty are enacted. They affect all religions, even those who had nothing to do with the incident that set the process in motion in the first place.
We may see yet another example of this sequence in Kenya, from where it is spreading like a virus to other African countries. Pastor Paul Mackenzie of Shakahola’s Good News International Church is in jail, accused of having promoted an extreme form of fasting that caused the death of more than 400 of his followers. Not all is clear in the incident, and there was nothing wrong in the fact that the Kenyan Senate had established an ad hoc committee trying to determine what exactly happened.
Assuming that Pastor Mackenzie, as the Kenyan police believes, caused the death of more than 400 human beings by inciting them to fast, he clearly deserves to be prosecuted and sentenced. Incitement to suicide is a crime in Kenyan law, as it is in the law of most countries. Just as homicide, rape, and other common crimes, it is not protected by freedom of religion or belief. There is no need to determine whether Good News is a religion, a church, or a “cult,” and this would in fact unnecessarily complicate the prosecution of Mackenzie. Being a “cult” is an imaginary felony. Inciting to suicide or killing people are real crimes.
Much more problematic is that the Senate Commission started investigating other religious groups, incited by the media, and some senators proposed radical measures such as requiring preliminary government approval for religious texts before they are published and even sermons before they are delivered. To the best of my knowledge, these measures only exist in China.
Although these radical measures have not been suggested by the Commission’s report, published last week, the document includes, together with some common sense comments on the Mackenzie case and the shortcomings of the police investigation, a vague definition of “cult” as “a system of belief directed towards a particular figure or object, for example, a self-appointed leader, prophet or someone with lofty titles” (p. 111), and a list of techniques allegedly used by “cults” largely derived from the anti-cult literature.
Worse, among the “best practices” that the report suggests Kenya should imitate there are the institution of an anti-cult agency (the MIVILUDES) in France and laws and regulations against “cults” such as those adopted in Japan after the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Japan’s crackdown on the Unification Church is also mentioned among the “best practices” (pp. 153–54).
The report also proposes to introduce a much stricter system of registration of religious organization inspired by the restrictive one existing in Rwanda and to compel all religions to be part of “umbrella organizations” under governmental control (p. 147). The proposal is similar to the one advanced in South Africa in 2017 (but not adopted by the Parliament) in an anti-cult report by the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL).
The report also suggests probing the finances of the churches and religions operating in Kenya and their leaders and reducing the tax exemption granted to religious organizations. After the tragedy in Kenya, similar proposals are now also heard in other African countries.
Finally, a new law on religion is proposed that should include provisions against “cults,” identified inter alia as groups guilty of “psychological abuse” (yet another incarnation of the discredited theory of brainwashing) and “curtailing any person’s personal liberties including freedom of conscience, opinion, political affiliation and freedom of assembly” (p. 147). Obviously, most religions limit the “freedom of conscience, opinion, political affiliation and freedom of assembly” of their members. Those who join a religion are normally required not to believe in different religions, which certainly limit their freedom of conscience and opinion. Some religions also limit the possibility of their members of joining political parties or participating in political and other gatherings, which is part of freedom of religion or belief and does not identify them as harmful or criminal organizations.
Obviously, these measures would greatly affect the freedom of religion of thousands of religious groups that do not kill anybody, do not incite to suicide, and do not commit crimes.
Even when it is alleged that some groups had relations with Mackenzie, or similar practices, extreme caution is in order, as the emotional climate created by the Shakahola deaths may lead media and politicians to believe false rumors. The report, echoed by local media, insists that Mackenzie was supported and perhaps inspired by the Jesus Christians, members of an Australian-based conservative Christian movement founded by Dave McKay, which has had for many years a presence in Kenya. The document calls for the expulsion of foreign members of the Jesus Christians from Kenya. Its references to McKay, his wife, and the Jesus Christians seem to be inspired by Australian anti-cultists who contacted the Kenyan authorities in an endeavor to damage the Jesus Christians internationally.
In fact, the Jesus Christians had nothing to do with the fasting. As “Bitter Winter” explained, what they shared with Mackenzie was a criticism of the Huduma Namba, a biometric ID system adopted in Kenya. Mackenzie saw in the Huduma Namba the “Mark of the Beast” of the Book of Revelation in the Bible, echoing conspiracy theories criticizing other chip-based ID system common among fundamentalist Christians in the U.S. and elsewhere. When Mackenzie was arrested in 2018 for his anti-Huduma-Namba campaign, he was supported by other Kenyan churches and pastors, most of whom did not agree with his theology and theories but saw in his arrest a violation of religious liberty. When Mackenzie was freed from jail, he expressed his gratitude to those who had supported him and invited a member of the Jesus Christians to preach in his church. None of these activities had the slightest reference to Mackenzie’s doctrines on fasting, of which those who supported him in the Huduma Namba case, including the Jesus Christians, were totally unaware.
The report also recommends to further investigate Pastor Ezekiel Odero and his New Life Prayer Center, one of the fastest-growing religious movements in Kenya. After the Shakahola incident came to light, Odero was arrested as he had been in touch with Mackenzie. Odero was also accused of having buried in secret followers who had died in his church. Not much more was needed for the media to claim that “a second suicide cult” had been discovered.
Odero, however, was quickly released—which did not prevent New Life Prayer Centre from being de-registered and losing its tax exemption, although the measure has been appealed. Odero could prove that he only had a business deal with Mackenzie to buy a TV station the latter owned, which does not make it an accomplice in the Shakahola pastor’s appeals to extreme fasting. As it was later confirmed by the police and by hearings of the Senate Committee itself, some of his numerous followers had died in his church of natural causes and had been buried there after the local authorities had been notified of their deaths.
I do not know Pastor Odero and did not investigate the New Life Prayer Centre (while I am familiar with the Jesus Christians and have studied their activities in Kenya). However, sensational media headlines last Spring claiming that New Life was a “suicide cult” that secretly buried its victims were based on false information, as are more recent Kenya media headlines on the Jesus Christians. The committee’s finding that the only proved relationship between Odero and Mackenzie was the business deal about the TV station seems inconsistent with the recommendation that Odero should be further investigated for possibly “aiding or abetting” Mackenzie (p. 156).
The very name of the committee, “Senate’s Ad Hoc Committee on the Proliferation of Religious Organizations,” is objectionable. It implies that the fact that religious organizations “proliferate” in Kenya is in itself a problem or a nuisance. It is not. In a democratic society, it is a sign that freedom of religion or belief is protected.
Criminal religious movements that commit real, common law crimes—as opposed to the imaginary crimes of “being a cult” and “brainwashing followers” —do exist, just as there are criminal politicians and criminal journalists. Using their crimes as a pretext to limit the freedom of all religions and putting them under state control is a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.