By Mitch Horowitz
Most people believe that the persecution of “witches” reached its height in the early 1690s with the trials in Salem, Mass., but it is a grim paradox of 21st-century life that violence against people accused of sorcery is very much still with us. Far from fading away, thanks to digital interconnectedness and economic development, witch hunting has become a growing, global problem.
In recent years, there has been a spate of attacks against people accused of witchcraft in Africa, the Pacific and Latin America, and even among immigrant communities in the United States and Western Europe. Researchers with United Nations refugee and human rights agencies have estimated the murders of supposed witches as numbering in the thousands each year, while beatings and banishments could run into the millions. “This is becoming an international problem — it is a form of persecution and violence that is spreading around the globe,” Jeff Crisp, an official with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, told a panel in 2009, the last year in which an international body studied the full dimensions of the problem. A report that year from the same agency and a Unicef study in 2010 both found a rise, especially in Africa, of violence and child abuse linked to witchcraft accusations.
More recent media reports suggest a disturbing pattern of mutilation and murder. Last year, a mob in Papua New Guinea burned alive a young mother, Kepari Leniata, 20, who was suspected of sorcery. This highly publicized case followed a series of instances over recent years of lethal group violence against women and men accused of witchcraft.
“These are becoming all too common in certain parts of the country,” said the prime minister, Peter O’Neill. Last year, Papua New Guinea finally repealed a 1971 law that permitted attackers to cite intent to combat witchcraft as a legal defense. But progress is slow. Although the police charged a man and woman in connection with the 2013 killing of Ms. Leniata, no one has faced trial, a fact that drew protest from Amnesty International in February.
One of the ugliest aspects of these crimes is their brutality. Victims are often burned alive, as in Ms. Leniata’s case and a 2012 case in Nepal; or accused women are sometimes beaten to death, as occurred in the Colombian town of Santa Barbara in 2012; or the victims may be stoned or beheaded, as has been reported in Indonesia and sub-Saharan Africa.
It is tempting to point to poverty in the developing world, as well as scapegoating, as the chief causes of anti-witch attacks — and such forces are undoubtedly at work. But while Africa and the southwestern Pacific have a long history of economic misery, much of this violence, especially against children, has worsened since 2000. The surge suggests forces other than economic resentment or ancient superstition.
In some communities, it is chiefly young men who take on the role of witch hunters, suggesting that they may see it as a way to earn prestige by cleansing undesirables and enforcing social mores. That many of the self-appointed witch hunters are men highlights another baleful aspect of the phenomenon: The majority of victims are women. The Rev. Jack Urame of the Melanesian Institute, a Papua New Guinean human rights agency, estimates that witchcraft-related violence there is directed 5 to 1 against women, suggesting that witchcraft accusations are used to cloak gender-based violence.
Another factor, particularly in Central Africa and its diaspora communities, is the advent of revivalist churches, in which self-styled pastor-prophets rail against witchery and demon possession. They often claim to specialize in the casting out of evil spirits, sometimes charging for the service. Many of those congregations have emerged from Western evangelizing efforts.
One of Nigeria’s most popular Pentecostal preachers, Helen Ukpabio, wrote that “if a child under the age of 2 screams in the night, cries and is always feverish with deteriorating health, he or she is a servant of Satan.” As that implies, children in those communities are especially likely to be identified as possessed. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that most of the 25,000 to 50,000 children who live on the streets of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, were abandoned by family members who accused them of witchcraft or demonic possession.
The etiology of this epidemic is complex, but human rights observers point to overpopulation, rapid urbanization and the hardship of parents forced to relocate to seek work, as well as the sheer stresses of raising children amid dire poverty. Superstitions are stoked by local “healers,” who charge parents to exorcise evil spirits.
Witch hunting is far from limited, however, to acts of sadistic vigilantism or profiteering. Some legal systems even sanction the killing of accused witches.
In 2011, courts in Saudi Arabia sentenced a man and a woman, in separate cases, to beheading after convictions for sorcery. In 2013, Saudi courts sentenced two Asian housemaids to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison on charges of casting spells against their employers.
A Lebanese television psychic, Ali Hussain Sibat, was arrested in 2008, while on pilgrimage to Medina, by the Saudi religious police for hosting a television show in his native Lebanon, “The Hidden,” where he would make predictions and prescribe love potions and spells. After an outcry by Amnesty International and others, the Saudi courts stayed Mr. Sibat’s execution by beheading, but sentenced him in 2010 to a 15-year prison term.