In Papua New Guinea, four women have been accused by other villagers of practicing black magic and may face an excruciating death, along with their thirteen children and grandchildren.
The accusations followed on a measles epidemic that recently hit the village, which, according to some of the inhabitants, is the result of a curse.
The Catholic Bishop of Wabag, Arnold Orowae, has launched a campaign against the persecution of so-called witches, and has threatened Catholics who get involved in sorcery-related attacks with excommunication.
In an interview Tuesday, Bishop Orowae expressed his disgust at people who call themselves Christians and yet spread dissension and lies linking innocent individuals to sorcery. He also said that the Catholic Church would fight against these witch hunters together with the police.
“The unethical and unlawful killing of women alleged to be witches must and will be stopped in 2015,” the bishop said.
The Bishops’ Conference of Papua New Guinea has also published an open letter in the two major Papuan dailies, to condemn the persecution of pseudo-witches.
Human Rights Watch said that violence against women in PNG “is rampant,” often involving charges of sorcery. In February, 2013, a mob in Western Highlands Province accused 20-year-old Kepari Leniata of sorcery after a six-year-old child died in her city. The mob stripped her and burned her to death as a witch. Eight other women reportedly were victims of such attacks during the course of the year.
The accused women are from the isolated Hewa area of the Enga province, a part of the country where there are no police and only a few missionaries. In the absence of decent roads, the area is accessible only by charter plane.
The dominant religion in this area is Lutheranism, but Catholics make up more than a quarter of the nation’s people, and the Church has launched an awareness campaign throughout the country, threatening to excommunicate any Catholic taking part in the torture or killing of so-called witches.
Rueben Mete, national youth director for the Evangelical Lutheran Church of PNG, says his church is also taking a very strong stand against people attacking or killing people accused of witchcraft.
A Lutheran missionary, Rev. Lutz, said that at least 25 suspected witches were tortured and murdered in the region Hewa the past 10 years.
The Catholic Church has been fighting a deeply rooted mentality in the area that attributes natural calamities to sorcery. Last January, the Church organized a conference titled “Church and Media – A Joint Reflection on Sorcery” in Boroko, a suburb of the capital, Port Moresby.
An Italian missionary and sociologist, Fr. Franco Zocca, was keynote speaker at the conference, and discussed the Church’s attitude toward magic and sorcery, as well as the findings of the Melanesian Institute, which studies indigenous cultures of the region.
Fr. Zocca has spent years researching attitudes toward sorcery in Papua New Guinea, and told conference attendees that “only scientific enlightenment and a massive education effort can help overcome sorcery beliefs” in the country.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome