Are Britain's fringe churches preaching a deadly message?

An African girl is murdered in the name of religion. A boy's torso is found floating in the Thames. Hundreds of children go missing from school. Paul Vallely investigates

In a church hall, hired from the local Church of England vicar, somewhere in north London, a group of worshippers are gathered. They are black, mainly African, mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). At the front a pastor, clad in denim, is speaking to them in English. "If you believe," he screeches into his hand-held mike, "say 'I believe'." As you sleep, he tells them, "the husband of night he come to make sex with you."

Then you hear the voice of the reporter: "This is a mass deliverance service. The pastor has complete control." A girl who has passed out is pulled to the side by two men, her feet dragging on the floor. "This girl is just 10," the reporter intones dramatically. Later we see the child having water poured down her throat as part of an exorcism. "Children watch as mothers fall to the ground," he continues as another woman wobbles to the floor.

The second fact. Five years ago an eight-year-old girl named Victoria Climbié died in north London after being abused by relatives who had brought her to Britain. The Home Office pathologist who examined her said it was the worst case of deliberate harm to a child he had seen. Victoria had also been taken by her relatives to a fringe church which was popular with Africans, the Universal Church Of The Kingdom Of God in Finsbury Park.

A third fact. A torso was dragged from the Thames near Tower Bridge in London in September 2001. A child, aged between four and seven, had died in what detectives concluded was a ritualistic killing. In an attempt to restore some humanity to the grisly torso the police named the boy Adam.

Fact number four. In May police conducting the inquiry into the headless torso announced that they had discovered that at the time the child was killed 300 African boys had gone missing from London schools in one three-month period alone.

Fact number five. This month two women and a man were sentenced after abusing an eight-year-old girl they thought was a witch. The Old Bailey heard that the Angolan orphan, known in court as Child B, was beaten and cut to "beat the devil out of her", in Hackney, east London.

Fact number six. At the end of the Child B case Det Supt Chris Bourlet, the head of Scotland Yard's Child Abuse Investigative Command, revealed that the Metropolitan Police had set up a six-person team, codenamed Project Violet, to work with African and Asian communities to identify the scale of child abuse among ethnic minorities.

Fact number seven. Radio 4's Today programme broadcast a story based on a leaked copy of a report commissioned by the Met after the official inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié. The journalist described the report as "absolutely chilling" and went on to outline gruesome claims of ritual abuse of African children, of witchcraft being practised in churches in London and of children being trafficked into this country from Africa. There were, he said, "countless examples of children being beaten, even murdered after being identified as witches by pastors". Detectives trying to investigate this were facing a "wall of silence" from the black community.

Add these facts together and what do you get? A blizzard of lurid newspaper stories which reached their high point in the London Evening Standard's front page splash: "Children Sacrificed in London Churches, Say Police".

On the back of all this commentators like the black MP Diane Abbott rushed to judgement with a call to "ban these witchcraft churches". Who could argue in the face of such facts?

Small wonder that the Home Office's children's minister Beverley Hughes has called a Government summit on the issue for this week. Representatives of African churches in the UK are to meet ministers and police and social services chiefs to decide what should be done.

But let us pause for a moment, and examine all these individual elements from other angles.

Look up the report of the inquiry into Victoria Climbié, for example, and you discover that the abuse on her had begun months before she was first taken to one of the independent black churches. She was taken to the Universal Church Of The Kingdom Of God, in Finsbury Park, for the first time only five days before her death. The pastor there told her aunt to take the child to hospital. All he could be criticised for was not phoning the police.

Talk to the police, or to John Azah, the black community leader who chairs the Met's Independent Advisory Group, and you find that - deeply shocking though the Adam-torso case is - they have found nothing to suggest that any other child has been sacrificed in the UK in this gruesome way.

Inquire at the church where the abuser-aunt of Child B was a regular attender and you discover that the woman was thrown out of the church two years before the abuse took place, for reasons unconnected with the child. The pastor of the church - Combat Spirituel in Dalston, east London - was investigated by the police and cleared of any responsibility. The church, despite its exotic name, is the offshoot of a major church in the DRC with a middle-class, professional congregation.

Examine the phenomenon of 300 African boys going missing from London school registers between July and September 2001 and there are any number of innocent explanations. They return to Africa; they move because their families are on the run from immigration officials; they are sent to live with other members of their extended families; they are registered elsewhere under different names in benefit frauds; they may even just have their names recorded differently in their new schools.

"The idea that 300 children have been killed in ritual sacrifices is hysterical," says Debbie Ariyo, the director of an organisation called Africans Unite Against Child Abuse. And Commander Dave Johnston of the Child Abuse Investigation Command has issued a statement about the missing boys which says "there was no evidence at all to suggest anything sinister had happened to them".

But what of the damning Met report? The 86-page document was the product of a year-long inquiry by two members of the black community who had acted as advisors to the Climbié family during the inquiry into Victoria's death. Perdeep Gill, a social worker from the Asian community with experience of child abuse and Mor Dioum, a Senegal-born civil rights worker, had been asked to undertake a research project to discover more about the way in which cultural and religious values influence opinions about abuse.

Just one and a half pages of the document were devoted to reporting unsubstantiated hearsay about child abuse which the authors felt would give the police an idea of the community attitudes . It was these secondhand claims in the report which were presented by many newspapers as evidence. Community gossip and fears exposed to black social workers were transformed into hard facts.

Members of the black community are outraged. "The level of reporting is pathetic," says the Reverend Nims Obunge, the pastor of Freedom's Ark church in Haringey, north London. Nims is a police chaplain and a member of the national Crimestoppers board as well as the son of a former Nigerian ambassador to Britain. "None of the three main incidents is really linked to responsibility by a church and yet we have been maligned unjustly by all these lies and innuendo, and the minds of the public have been prejudiced against us. Journalists can't seem to understand the difference between exuberant worship and child abuse. It's pitiful."

There is a cultural ignorance underlying the media response, insists Reverend Katei Kirby of the African and Caribbean Evangelical Alliance. Referring to the Newsnight film she said: "Exorcism was totally misrepresented in it. The programme-makers didn't understand. They made assumptions that people were being traumatised on the basis of observations.

"People in these services are not there against their will," she continues. "And how they behave is not to do with trauma but is culturally determined. To sensationalise it because it's in an African context smacks of discrimination."

Others are more direct, detecting a racist subtext to the media reaction. "Some of the coverage reminds me of the racist 19th-century anthropological literature," said the black academic, Dr Robert Beckford, the author of Jesus is Dread: Black Theology and Black Culture in Britain. The undertone to the reports, says Azah, is "scratch an African and under the skin he is just a superstitious primitive and open to the most terrible kinds of barbarism,".

Even those concerned about child abuse in the black community agree. Africans Unite Against Child Abuse campaigns against the trafficking of children from Africa to black families in the developed world to be used as domestic slaves or for sexual purposes. Yet even its director, Debbie Ariyo, says that the current moral panic is "about stigmatising, criminalising and demonising the African community."

Yet there is a danger in all this. That much is evidenced from the experience of South Africa and the muti killings. Muti is the Zulu word for medicine. In day-to-day matters as many of 80 per cent of the population of South Africa use it. Traditional healers, or sangomas, make potions from local herbs and plants to cure headaches and stomach ailments. But more complicated illnesses call for animal parts such as crocodile fat, hawks' wings, monkeys' heads or dried puff-adders.

Where muti becomes sinister is among followers who believe that human body-parts can be used with even greater effect than those of animals. Human hands burned to ash and mixed into a paste are seen as a cure for strokes. Blood is given to boost vitality. Brains are used to impart political power and business success. Genitals, breasts and placentas are used for infertility and good luck. Most shocking of all is the belief that body parts taken from live victims are rendered more powerful by the screams of the donor.

In the years after apartheid, Johannesburg's newspapers thrilled and disgusted their white readers with sensational stories about muti killings - not unlike the recent flurry of African witchcraft articles in the British press in their tone. They seemed stories which reinforced white perceptions that the nation's blacks were not quite ready for freedom, let alone power. So the black authorities downplayed them.

But, six years after the fall of apartheid, the phenomenon was seen to move from the rural areas and into the townships. In a spate of killings in Soweto a number of boys aged between one and six were kidnapped as they played in the township's dusty streets. While they were still alive they had their genitals and thumbs cut off and their eyes gouged out and were left to bleed to death on wasteland. The scale of the activities, under the nose of the South African authorities, brought about a significant change in attitude.

The government set up a Commission of Inquiry into Witchcraft Violence and Ritual Murders to investigate the problem. Its conservative estimate is that at least 300 people have been murdered for their body parts in the past decade in South Africa. Some investigators there suspect the figure may be as high as 500 a year. One child has gone missing every three days in the country's four northern provinces; police fear many are muti victims.

Is the same complex dynamic between African black magic and reluctance to engage in racist witchhunts at play in London today? Or is the parallel inexact?

The phenomenon of children being branded as witches is one which appears to be increasing in Africa. That certainly is the case in the DRC - home to the abusers in the Child B case - where as long as six years ago it was reported that there were 14,000 children living on the streets after being thrown out of their homes for being "sorcerers". The DRC has a number of "witch schools" in which evangelical Christians offer safe haven and education to such children. In South Africa's Limpopo province there are designated safe "witch villages" where child victims of witch-hunts can find safety. In Tanzania and Mozambique there have been killings of old women accused of witchcraft.

A culture of deliverance, blessing and exorcism has is evident in many black churches in London today. But, as Reverend Kirby points out, there is a big difference between what can look like an over-emphasis on the practice of exorcism and making the leap to assuming that the atmosphere encourages the abuse of children. "Today 51 per cent of the church population in London is African or Caribbean - mainly in mainly evangelical or pentecostal churches but also in the mainstream Anglican and Catholic churches," she asserts, "and in none of them are we hearing of child abuse."

So, if there is a problem on what scale is it?

Dr Richard Hoskins is a specialist in African religions at King's College London. It was he who advised the police in both the Adam torso and the Child B witchcraft cases.

"In the last five years, the belief that children can be possessed has taken off. The idea is that the children are infected by witchcraft after taking a piece of infected bread or peanut. This stays inside the child until they are delivered of it," he has written. "The child will be deprived of food and liquid for three days before the exorcism begins. Sometimes a child will be shaken, sometimes chilli peppers will also be rubbed in the eyes. Sometimes there are beatings.

At the end the child will vomit or suffer diarrhoea, and that is taken as the spirit exiting, while the child is, in fact, in fear and has not eaten for three days." In at least 15 cases, he says, children have been sent back to the DRC for exorcism, one of whom, reportedly, died. "The bitter irony is that this is not traditional African belief at all," he insists. "Most African people inhabit a universe in which the spirit world is much more immediate than in Western culture.

"Traditionally, if a child is affected, the parents consult a local healer, in the DRC known as a nganga, who makes charms to ward off the unwanted spirit. The nganga would not perform a violent exorcism. Africans are indulgent of their children and rarely even smack them."

Exorcism in Britain, he says, is a product of fundamentalist Christian exorcists, "often itinerants who wander from Christian splinter groups to charismatic churches, casting out demons from helpless and terrified children". The fundamentalist Christian groups they serve meet in warehouses, private homes, and garages. "There is no check on their activities. It is a Frankenstein religion that nobody knows how to control." There is cause to get worried, in his view. "This could be the tip of an iceberg."

So how many actual cases can he point to? He knows of seven in which social workers have intervened: five in London, one in the south-west of England and one in the north-west. All involved people from the DRC. Whether they will result in prosecutions, however, is unclear, at least one other case has come to court. It was of a Congolese man jailed for five years at Snaresbrook Crown Court in November 2003 after branding his son with a steam iron to drive out the devil. The pastor of an evangelical church had told the parents their child was possessed and "flew around during the night eating people".

But many leading figures in the black community are more cautious. "There are only four children who have actually been harmed, so far as we are definitely aware," insists Azah. "Victoria Climbié, Adam, the Snaresbrook boy, and Child B. We have to be careful about what is evidence and what is someone saying: 'This is what I have heard'. It may happen but I'd be suspicious about the scale of it."

At Africans Unite Against Child Abuse, Ariyo says: "Even as an organisation that campaigns against child abuse, I don't see any evidence that children are being brought here by the plane-load to be killed by churches. Exorcism is an issue that needs to be addressed. Most of these churches conduct it only through prayer and fasting, though if you're forcing a child to fast it's a form of starving them. But a few churches do take it to a physical extreme."

Yet her main concern is other forms of abuse - physical punishment, female genital mutilation, and the use of children as domestic servants. "It's common in West Africa for people to say, 'take in my son and he'll wash your dishes,' and that practice is now creeping into the UK," she says. Sexual abuse is also an issue. "Abuse happens within the African community just like in any other community."

Ironically, finding the scale of the problem was what the report by Gill and Dioum was designed to do. Their brief was to look at a wide range of issues including female genital mutilation, physical chastisement and forced marriage. All those who have seen it say it is a thorough and admirable piece of work.

"People trusted them and they opened up and talked about things that I'd never heard about before," says Sahdia Warraich of the Black and Ethnic Minority Community Care Forum. "This is a report written by black people, about black people, consulting with black people. We have 100-per-cent faith in what the report team have done." Their only mistake, it seems, was in not being sufficiently savvy to realise how the section of hearsay would play in a sensationalist media in the event of the report being leaked, as it was.

"I'd like to see the full report published now, warts and all," Warraich says. It is not a view the Met is in a hurry to comply with - understandably.

The key question now is how to extricate things from the present sorry mess. "It's all become a bit of an own goal for the Met," says Azah. "They wanted to work out how to engage better with the black community and have succeeded only in further alienating many of its members.

"One of the things that amazed me was how little anger there was in the black community when Adam's torso was discovered," he continues. "And how, in the Damilola Taylor case, people were not prepared to come forward to say anything. The black community needs to be enabled to educate itself in what its best interests are."

That was much the conclusion of the report, which talked about a "wall of silence", and a community which is loath to engage with a police force it often sees as bigoted, intolerant and disrespectful.

The best way to safeguard children from harm is by establishing a dialogue with the pastors who have such influence over their congregations, suggests Kirby. It's not about attacking beliefs, it's about changing practices, says Ariyo.

All of which might best be done through the Home Office's Faith Communities Unit, rather than having the boots of PC Plod trampling over black cultural sensitivities. The police can only deal with consequences, and it is causes that need to be tackled. That can only be done if the media will let those responsible get on with the job without generating the kind of response which is part of the problem, rather than the solution.

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