Dozens of bodies have been discovered on the property of a Kenyan religious group which authorities have labeled a “cult.” The leader of the small sect has been arrested, accused of encouraging followers to starve themselves to death in order to “meet Jesus.”
The death toll reached 73 on Monday after 26 additional bodies were unearthed, as police continue to search the grounds of the Good News International Church, a small sect located on a remote stretch of land near the city of Malindi, Kenya. Officials said the bodies were found in shallow “mass graves,” which were “scattered” across a wooded area covering 800 acres.
Described as a “suspected religious cult” by police inspector general Japhet Koome, the church’s pastor Paul Nthenge Mackenzie was said to have promoted bizarre beliefs and practices, including instructing members to starve themselves to avoid “apocalyptic damnation” and to “meet Jesus,” according to police and local press
Mackenzie has had numerous brushes with the law since 2017, and was arrested in March for “the alleged death of two children who are believed to have been starved to death,” Kenya’s Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) said. Though he was later released on bail, he was picked up again on April 14 after 15 people were rescued on his land – four of whom were reportedly “emaciated and in critical condition.” They died before reaching a hospital, while the other 11, including two minors, required treatment, local media reported. Mckenzie remains in custody, and is likely to face additional charges.
The search on the church property was initiated last week following a public tip-off, the DCI added, noting that graves were found in several locations. Kenya’s chief homicide investigator, Martin Nyuguto, said the entire area has been sealed off as a crime scene, as police have “identified other sites where more bodies are believed to have been buried.”
In a televised speech on Monday, Kenyan President William Ruto said Mackenzie’s alleged actions were “akin to terrorism,” adding that “Terrorists use religion to advance their heinous acts.” The country’s interior minister, Kithure Kindiki, also described the deaths as a “massacre.”
Kenyan authorities said 33 people had been rescued since the search operation began last week, presumably members of the church, though their condition remains unclear, with some reportedly still refusing to eat, according to the New York Times. The country’s Red Cross branch said at least 178 church members have been reported missing, and it has set up a “tracing” team to help locate them.