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