THE Catholic Church has a unique role in combating belief in sorcery and mob reprisal attacks against sorcerers, a bishop in Papua New Guinea has said.
A shocking video emerged last week reportedly showing the torture of women suspected of witchcraft and accused of “invisibly” taking out a man’s heart after he fell ill in August.
The footage shows at least four women being stripped, tied up, burned and beaten, as they are prodded and threatened with machetes by men who shout questions at them. It is thought at least one died following the attack.
One woman pleads for her life, calling out “My son, stop it!” while another cries out “I’ve got nothing to do with it. I am the mother of five children.”
Pittsburgh-born Bishop Don Lippert of Mendi, where the attacks took place, was initially worried about such graphic footage being shared, but now hopes it spurs people into doing something to change the situation.
“I worried about when I saw photos on Facebook that it might provoke copycats,” he told the Catholic Herald. “On the other hand, the graphic photos can also help to turn public opinion against it.”
The bishop said the video had been widely shared on social media but the attackers, like so many, had gone unpunished.
He has organised an anti-sorcery forum, to be attended by priests and bishops from across the region as well as the US ambassador to Papua New Guinea and the Solomons, Walter North.
He told the Catholic Herald that this was not the first case, making an appeal for prayers as well as action from the government.
“I feel there are two related issues,” he said. “The issue of belief in sanguma [sorcery] and the issue of acting on those beliefs in retribution violence.”
Both, he said, needed to be combated urgently.
One problem, according to Bishop Lippert and many activists, is that the law is not enforced and the government does not push the police to act.
“Changing beliefs can take a long time. However, society has the duty of protecting the vulnerable and must hold accountable those who perpetrate violence against them. Right now people do these things with impunity,” he said
“It is a very complex issue involving all of the following – in varying degrees – fear, resentment, jealousy, marijuana, greed, culture, clash of cultures, diabolical evil, and more.”
He added the complexity made it difficult, but not impossible to combat: “Some are happy to keep the ‘dirty little secret’ – but the more attention it gets, the more people realise that something must be done now.”
For the bishop, the Church is key to changing people’s beliefs, alongside educating them.
“The Church has a role which only it can play in the struggle against evil,” he explained. “[It] also has a teaching, evangelising and awareness role with the people.
“The Church can also help to mobilise leaders and policy makers, which we are trying to do here. It has a long history of being or giving voice to the voiceless, but so much more needs to be done.”
Despite the dangers, the Church has been reaching out to the villages, trying to help those who find themselves accused and facing the terrifying prospect of torture and death.
In Bishop Lippert’s diocese Catholic nuns venture into the worst areas, putting their lives at risk in a desperate bid to reach those in need of help.
“They go right to the midst of where it is happening,” the bishop said. “They have been threatened, pushed, stoned and in one case burned. They have been accused of being witches.
“They are not always successful the first time, but they do not give up until they take the victim into their care.”
According to Bishop Lippert “most, but not all, victims are women with no one to stand up for them.”
“Women here (in the Highlands) are still in many ways, second class citizens,” he said. “They make easy targets.”
Luckily, so far the nuns have survived the attacks, and the bishop adds they and local helpers are not deterred from returning to help.
“[The nuns] are incredibly and inspiringly courageous,” he said, adding it is all part of the Church’s role, to help those in need.
A PNG law that allowed a defence to violence if it “stopped witchcraft” was repealed in 2013, and killings related to sorcery accusations are now punishable by death.
The government is also reportedly developing a sorcery national action plan, but as yet there does not seem to be much improvement, according to Bishop Lippert.
According to opposition leader Samuel Basil there is a lot of work to be done, as entire communities were taking part in torturing suspected victims.
“It’s very hard for police to act when a whole community is involved, and there is no witness to testify,” Basil said.
“We have a culture, a Melanesian culture, where some people very strongly believe in sorcery, including some very educated people. I do not believe in that but I’m sure I have very educated relatives who believe in sorcery.”