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Church fights witch killings in PNG: “Surely it will come to an end”

New Zealand-born Fr Philip Gibbs SVD has spent more than 40 years working in PNGRAY CAVANAUGH | New Zealand Catholic

SOME people may find it hard to believe that witch-hunting would occur in the 21st century. But it wreaks havoc still in some parts of the world.

In Papua New Guinea, witch hunts have seen a grisly resurgence, with an increased brutality in methods of punishment. Now, the Catholic Church there is trying to curb those practices, which are reported to be claiming up to 150 lives a year.

Fr Philip Gibbs (pictured), a priest, anthropologist and researcher, said the Catholic Church has been conducting workshops in parishes to raise awareness about the issue and how it is totally contrary to the Christian response to misfortune and death.

The Church’s message against witch hunting is delivered with particular emphasis in the Highlands region, where much of the nation’s witch-related violence takes place. In those communities, many of which are remote, the Catholic bishops have posted anti-witch hunting statements on noticeboards and addressed the issue during Sunday services.

Fr Gibbs, who has spent more than four decades in Papua New Guinea, has met surviving victims of accusation and torture, as well as those who have committed witch-related torture and killings.

During the “witch craze” of Europe, which lasted about three centuries, it is estimated that at least 50,000 people (and possibly many times more) were executed. Fr Gibbs and other influential Catholics are striving to curb the witch hunts before they reach crazed proportions.

Indeed, one Catholic bishop, Arnold Orowae, is threatening excommunication for any Catholic who perpetrates a witch hunt.

Although Fr Gibbs said he doesn’t know how many perpetrators have been excommunicated formally, he points out that, “in a way, the people involved excommunicate themselves”. Those witch hunters commit such acts as murder, torture, and the permanent banishment of an accused witch from the community.

That last punishment has led to a growing population of witch-accused refugees.

Papua New Guinea’s population is 7.3 million, and just over 25% are Catholic.

Although most Papua New Guineans identify as Christian, their Christianity often is mixed with indigenous beliefs, which include magic: both “white magic”, such as medicinal faith healing, and “black magic”, such as hexes and sorcery.

These are so ingrained in Papua New Guinean culture that as recently as 1971 the government passed the Sorcery Act, which instituted prison for witches and, even more problematically, made suspicions of witchcraft a legitimate legal defence for attacking someone.

The Sorcery Act was repealed in 2013. But old habits die hard, particularly when they involve the supernatural, and even more so in a place like Papua New Guinea, where many inhabitants are unacquainted with scientific explanations for illness and natural disaster.

Such events as a measles epidemic or the sudden death of a seemingly healthy person can easily trigger accusations of witchcraft, as the universal human need to find a reason for a bad event can take a sinister turn.

Those sinister turns have made international news in recent years. In July 2012, about 29 Papua New Guineans were charged with killing and cannibalising suspected witches. In February 2013, a video captured the execution by fire of a 20-year-old female who was suspected of witchcraft.

Papua New Guinea reinstituted the death penalty in 2013, in large part as an official deterrent to those who torture and execute suspected witches. Although the recently imposed consequences sound severe, the reality is that most people involved with witch killings are not even charged with a crime, much less convicted.

The nation’s police force is undermanned, and officers have been accused of looking the other way.

Also, it has been suggested that many officers believe the accused witches are guilty. It seems that religious institutions may be one of the few authority groups that can combat the witch hunting culture, which has spread to more urban areas, including Port Moresby, the capital city.

A June 2013 article in the International Business Times, ‘Witch Hunts In Papua New Guinea On The Rise’, mentions how a growing economy (largely due to the mining industry) has led to economic inequality, which, in turn, has led to jealousy and bitterness.

And so bands of young men, often frustrated by their own lack of opportunity for advancement, have found a calling in the persecution of so-called witches.

Some point to another factor being the nation’s increasing access to the Internet, and in particular to Internet pornography. In fact, Papua New Guinea is the world’s most porn-obsessed nation, according to recent information released by Google Trends.

Indeed, much of the recent witch punishments have a gruesome, sexually charged quality. Tortures can include the use of hot irons, which might be applied to the victim over a period of days.

At the conclusion of such punishment, the accused witch might be allowed to live, or might instead be killed by being burned alive, buried alive, or decapitated.

Even aside from witch hunting, Papua New Guinea has an unsettling record of violence against women, and more than half of its female inhabitants have been raped. Many feel that misogyny is the driving force behind much of these witch hunts, which usually involve female victims, many of whom are on their own (such as old widows) and completely vulnerable.

Fr Gibbs thinks the grisly witch hunting practice will cease, eventually: “Surely it will come to an end. How long it will take is hard to know. It took hundreds of years in Europe. I certainly hope it will take less than that here.

“In the Church we are trying our best to make sure that happens, with the grace of God.”

Ray Cavanaugh has written for many publications including The London Magazine, USA Today and The Washington Post


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Peter Kranz

Well we can argue about the validity of statistics till the cows come home. Maybe first hand experience and case studies from women themselves provide the most telling evidence.

The best analysis of the situation I have come across is this article by Jo Chandler which combines both stats, first-hand accounts and interviews with PNG leaders and elders. It's lengthy, well-referenced and deserves to be read in full.

Michael Dom

Information on domestic and sexual violence is is more reliably provided by health workers at clinics, hospitals and health centres across the country as well as social workers and counsellors and, very likely, members of the clergy.

I can understand the caution with accepting statistics provided by NGO's etc, which may be produced with a bias towards supporting their pet cause.

But dismissing the statistics out-of-hand, even while questioning the validity of the sampling, may be a little too casual.

A comparison of statistics related issues on sexual violence with statistics projected for essentially resource and development oriented programs, such as mines or a new road, is not relevant, because the information gathered on the latter kind of surveys are heavily laden with problems of inaccuracy and misinformation - mainly because there's far too much benefit to be had by all involved to make the picture look good!

The same can't be said for essentially humanitarian statistics projections.

In my own experience with surveys done in PNG, no matter the difficulty of implementation, the findings are often not too far from those purported reports, for example lack of rural access and people living below a dollar-a-day.

For the latter example the relevance of the statistic needs to be questioned, where in PNG we own our land, farm it and feed ourselves.

So under the subsistence and semi-subsistence lifestyle, with occasional earnings from cash crops and other items, there is very little need from around 85% of people to participate in the cash economy.

Moreover, as we know the actual figures for household income tends to change when demographics comes into play - rural versus urban, number of employed family members, number of people in the household and etc.

For example, a dollar a day = about K2.70 which is K985.50 per year.

This sound damnably too low!

But consider the case of a pig keeper, selling an unimproved village pig (raised on sweet potato feed) at Mt Hagen for K3,000, after keeping the animal for about three years - that's about K1,000 per year, so...

What I mean is, regarding family, domestic and sexual violence, there's a lot of nasty shit happening that we know about (e.g. a grown man raped a baby), some we can only guess at (how many unreported cases - ol famili na wantok sem na ino tokaut) and some that we may never hear about.

Perhaps we should proceed with caution - expect the worst and plan to address that, rather than expect that everything is wonderful and we don't need to be alarmed.

I agree, Sil, traditionally we have looked after our women and children. We should continue to do that in this modern age where, as you have also argued, traditions are breaking down.

But bad things have always happened.

So are the horrible crimes we now find out about expected even from traditional times?

I'd rather that for this agenda we took the bleak view and purposefully went looking for the problem.

Otherwise, we miss addressing a critical issue that strikes too close to the heart of our nation - family.

Kela Kapkora Sil Bolkin

Kera Peter, whilst we admit that there is abuse of women, we can't generalise. I have known all these entities enough to state that their sample size is too small to generalise that PNG has a culture of misogyny or acute abuse of women.

Their researches are mostly done around a couple of suburbs in Port Moresby or Lae. The data are also collected in a couple of police stations in Port Moresby or Lae. You and I know that this small sample cannot represent PNG.

Try do a literature review and you will realise that 50 per cent of the researches are done around Port Moresby. Port Moresby or Lae is not PNG. PNG has 850 nations and one has to take a good sample size for external validity.

Phil Fitzpatrick

I think Sil is talking about the researchers' egos, not yours Peter.

The misogyny thing is a bit tricky. You don't have to hate women to rape them or beat them. It may even be that frustration born of love can lead to rape and beatings.

The men are the problem, just as they are in Australia, because violence in males is a natural reaction to stress and pressure. I think that's the aspect that needs to be tackled.

I also agree with Sil about the statistics - there is no way that random sampling in a place like PNG will throw up reliable data. We don't even know where the data comes from. Does it comes from police records? If so we know it is unreliable.

I think the biggest cause is the breakdown of cultural norms by westernisation. If western culture got its act together it might flow on to PNG. I can't see that happening anytime soon - we celebrate war and violence after all.

Peter Kranz

Oh Sil, I am sorry that you may think this is anything to do with my own ego. I have three women in my immediate family (of five) who have been subject to sexual and physical abuse, including my own wife.

You must not diminish this.

And the NGOs who you are critical of have had first-hand experience of the abuse done to PNG women - at the hand of PNG men. Don't diminish the importance of this serious problem.

As Phil said a while ago, the men are the problem.

Kela Kapkora Sil Bolkin

Human Rights Watch and other entities have one thing in common. They come to PNG with one eye closed and of course what they will say and have said are pre-determined.

Lets look at Human Rights Watch. What is the sample size of its research population and how does it verify or falsify the internal validity and the external validity which give that staggering statistics?

Can all these entities publish their research methodologies on how they come up with such inflated statistics? If you do a research in Port Moresby or Madang, they are not PNG.

How can you use a small sample size to make it represent PNG? I can still question the external validity unless you impress me with a good sample size.

No way will you folks generalise and paint a bad picture about PNG with a half-baked research design to suit your own ego.

Peter Kranz

Sil - I think you may be seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses.

Human Rights Watch World Report, 2015 states that "PNG is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman, with an estimated 70 percent of women experiencing rape or assault in their lifetime."

You can find similar reports from Amnesty, MSF, the UN etc.

The National reported 2 years ago -

"SIXTY-eight percent or more than 2.3 million women in Papua New Guinea have experienced violence, Health Minister Michael Malabag said.

One third, or 1.13 million, were subjected to rape and 17% of sexual abuse involved girls between the ages 13 and 14.

The staggering statistics were revealed by Malabag at the observation of the “1 Billion Rising” event at Port Moresby’s Jack Pidik Park.

And suggestions were that the figures were even higher as numbers of were based on reported cases.

The ABC reported this year -

"Around two-thirds of women (in PNG) face domestic or gender-based violence. More than half of the nation's women experience rape within marriage and 68 per cent are beaten at home.

And as for "Christianity is a white magic and sorcery is a black magic. Both are not based on empirical evidence. Is there any logic in believing in one and renouncing the other?" Personally I think both are as irrational as the other. But there is one important difference. One works for the betterment of women, one does not.

Christianity doesn't practice the torture and murder of women for alleged magical practices. It has learned its lesson as Fr Gibbs points out.

But what can you say about the savage debauchery and sick sadism that motivates current-day witch-hunters?

Kela Kapkora Sil Bolkin

Sorcery and witch hunting is a problem in PNG. However, it is not true that 'more than half of the female inhabitants are raped.' That is an exaggeration.

Each tribe protect their womenfolk, if you rape you risk your life. Maybe, rape happens more in the cities of PNG.

Women play a vital role in the Melanesian cosmology and so there is no misogyny in PNG either. We love our womenfolk and fight to protect them and pay huge bride prices to marry them.

Sorcery and witch hunting happens intermittently in the highlands region and it can be minimized.

By the way, Christianity is a white magic and sorcery is a black magic. Both are not based on empirical evidence. Is there any logic in believing in one and renouncing the other?

Genocide, corporatocracy, religious war, the tolerance of the plight of the West Papuan people, etc, should be a concern. It happens on a grander scale but swept under the carpet consistently.

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