‘Black Jesus’ Steven Tari is hacked to death

Cult leader was a convicted rapist, but local rumours of cannibalism persist

An infamous cult leader known as “Black Jesus” has met a grisly end in Papua New Guinea, where villagers chopped him to death while he was attacking a young woman.

Steven Tari had been on the run since March, when he was one of 49 men who escaped from a prison in Madang, in the east of the South Pacific nation. One of his followers, who joined him in the attack, met the same fate in the remote village of Gal, about 20km outside Madang.

A Bible school drop-out who promised his followers prosperity and eternal life, Tari was arrested in 2007 amid sensational claims that he had performed sacrificial killings and feasted on the flesh of his victims. In the event, he was charged only with rape, although rumours of murder and cannibalism continued to dog him. In 2010 he was convicted of raping four teenage girls who had joined his sect. He was jailed for 20 years.

The Madang police superintendent, Sylvester Kalaut, told reporters that the young woman attacked by Tari and his companion had been “tricked into joining the cult”. Angry villagers surrounded the two men and killed them. The district administrator, Lawrence Pitor, said: “Those who live by the sword die by the sword. [Tari] brought his own demise by the evil he dwelled in.”

The self-styled Black Jesus’s death followed the murder last week of a Gal schoolgirl, allegedly by Tari. The girls he was convicted of raping also came from Gal. In an interview in prison in 2008 with Australian Associated Press, Tari, 38, claimed that his beliefs entitled him to have sex with female recruits as young as eight. He called them “flower girls”, and boasted of having sex with more than 400 of them. “I got plenty, 430 [girls],” he said. “What I did… is under and in line with my religion. It was religious and not wrong.”

In a country where superstition and sorcery remain powerful forces, Black Jesus attracted thousands of devotees. Arrested in 2005, he absconded and went on the run, hiding in remote mountain villages and guarded by a loyal core of armed disciples. He was eventually captured by villagers, and carried out of the jungle on a bamboo stretcher, hands and feet bound.

Like much of Melanesia, nominally Christian PNG is home to numerous bizarre sects and cargo cults. Last year, police arrested dozens of people linked to an alleged cannibal cult accused of killing at least seven people, eating their brains raw and making soup from their penises. In 2009, police hunted down a cult leader who was coercing followers to take part in public sex  with promises of a bumper banana harvest.

The grandfather of Papua New Guinea’s first native Anglican bishop, Sir George Ambo, was a cannibal. Sir George was excommunicated after running off with a nun, Sister Cora, with whom he set up a visionary cult, but was forgiven on his deathbed.Black Jesus studied to become a Lutheran minister at a Bible college in Madang, but quit after rejecting the Bible’s teachings, leaving behind his clothes and possessions. Retreating into the mountains, he founded his personality cult, calling himself Son of Yali. Yali was a much revered cult leader in Madang.

During his reign, Tari – assisted by a Lutheran pastor – closed down village churches and schools. Scores of homes were torched by his followers, along with crops. He preached that young girls were to be “married” to him because it was God’s prophecy and told those he raped that they would go to heaven. They were brought to him by their parents, he claimed.