Don't demonise African churches

28th April 2006 at 01:00
African evangelism has suffered a bad press recently, writes James Heartfield

Ayo Adedoyin, head of communications at Jesus House opposite Brent Cross, northwest London, is explaining that his church is not like those you have read about, or seen on television: "When Jesus got demons from people, he didn't have to stomp on them or cut them out with a razor," he says.

Six years ago, the death in Tottenham of Victoria Climbi , an eight-year-old girl from the Ivory Coast, raised fears that her abuse was justified by allegations that she was possessed by evil spirits, on advice from pastors at the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. Last year, two Angolans were convicted of cruelty to their eight-year-old niece.

They said she was a witch, on advice from Pastor Raph of the church Combat Spirituel.

In January, Pastor Dieudonne Tukala of the Church of Christ Mission in Tottenham was charged with inciting child cruelty. Tukala is supposed to have told parents their children were possessed, and that they should be beaten or sent back to the Congo for exorcism. Last month, Richard Hoskins'

documentary Witch Child for BBC2 showed that children sent for exorcism were chained up, beaten, made to drink pigeon's blood and cut open to get evil spirits out of their bellies.

The shockwaves from these cases are reverberating through Britain's African churches. This month, Jesus House takes part in a symposium to "sort the wheat from the chaff". "They must be doing damage in people's minds, these stories of child abuse and witchcraft", says Mr Adedoyin.

The Reverend Katie Kirby of the African Caribbean Evangelical Alliance agrees: "Exorcism is a good thing, but it's not meant to be abusive - there's no biblical precedent for that."

London's Metropolitan Police are investigating child abuse in African churches as well as hosting seminars to educate about child protection issues.

The rapid expansion in African evangelical churches owes a lot to dynamic marketing techniques and close involvement in day-to-day activities, from cooking to youth groups. Their flocks are chiefly African migrants but, increasingly Afro-Caribbean and others are joining. "We happen to be Africans," they tell me at Jesus House, "but we choose to be Christians."

Teachers will find African students family-minded and conservative. It is important to understand that child protection concerns for African children are the same as for Europeans. Affiliation to an African evangelical church is not an indication of abuse, nor is there any "culturally sensitive"

justification for child cruelty.

Often the treatment of "possession" in African churches is justified on the grounds that it is a survival of older beliefs common within Christian churches in sub-Saharan Africa. The colonial churches fought animism and other pagan beliefs, but African churches have often been thought to protect earlier forms of worship like Voudun.

The explosion of evangelical churches in non-Islamic Africa is in part due to the social dislocation that these have countries suffered, according to Mr Adedoyin. "Have you seen how poor some of these places are?" he asks, by way of an explanation of backward practices.

It is an explanation that Europeans are uncomfortable with.

Anthropologists, ashamed of the record of forced conversion to Christianity, began flattering African spiritualism. Last year's Africa Commission report, Our Common Interest, went so far as to praise the "profoundly benign dimension of animism" - a passage inserted by Bob Geldof. A sign next to a shrine in the Horniman museum in south London says Voodoo was one of the greatest achievements of the African people. At Jesus House, they beg to differ.

BELIEFS

Evangelism

The most rapidly growing African churches are evangelist. They spread the word of God and put less store by doctrinal difference than by common belief.

Animism

The many spiritual beliefs predominant in sub-Saharan Africa. Views nature as being animated by spirits.

Witches

Medieval European Christians persecuted witches. Witchcraft was an accusation, not a religion.

African Witchcraft

Anthropologist EE Evans-Pritchard first used the term witchcraft to describe a belief in malign spirits among the Azande (Witches, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande, 1973).

Kindoki

Witchcraft in the Congolese language Langala. Belief in possession by evil spirits has a scriptural basis (Luke 8:30).

Exorcism

Casting out demons. The Catholic Church renewed its rite of exorcism in 1998. Ad hoc rituals of exorcism examined in the BBC2 documentary Witch Child involved burning and beatings.

RESOURCES:

The African and Caribbean Evangelical Alliance runs courses in counselling and youth work. Whitefield House,186 Kennington Park Road, London SE11 4BT.

Tel: 020 7735 7373; www.aceauk.org

AFRUCA, Africans Unite Against Child Abuse is based at Unit 4S, Leroy House, 436 Essex Road, London N1 3QP. Tel: 020 7704 2261; www.afruca.org Jesus House runs a children's service from 2.30pm, Sunday. Brent Terrace, Brent Cross, London, NW2 1LT. Tel: 020 8438 8285; www.jesushouse.org.uk

The Horniman Museum has a large collection of ethnography. The Museum is situated at 100 London Road, Forest Hill, south London, on the South Circular Road (A205). Admission is free and the museum is open daily from 10.30am to 5.30pm.

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