Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Gay & Lesbian Humanists

Gay & Lesbian Humanists

This is not particularly a gay issue -- but it is an important one, which the BBC have done well to tackle.

"London has to face the illegal consequences of religious practicesthat some migrants bring with them from their countries of origin. We should neither accept them, nor ignore them to appease cultural sensibilities."

The spectre of Ndoki, or witchcraft, being practiced [sic] in London has reared its ugly head again. The Metropolitan police arrested an Angolan pastor who has been ministering in London for the past five years. Kurt Barling looks at the fall out

Although the congregation of the Christ in Mission Church in Tottenham has declined recently, Pastor Dieudonne Tukala who arrived in London from Angola in 1999 still has a significant following.

His word is interpreted by some in his congregation as the word of God. He is accused of inciting cruelty to children.

In an unconnected case back in 2001 a torso was washed up on the banks of the River Thames. The police investigation into who murdered the child they named "Adam" has so far found no perpetrators. What was uncovered though was a gruesome example of a ritual sacrifice. Through his DNA, the boy was identified as coming from Western Nigeria.

Although there is little evidence to show the cases coming to light are directly related, they nevertheless fit a pattern which points to practices still common in parts of Africa finding their way to London with new migrants.

What seems to remain a matter of confusion for a number of emerging churches steeped in African tradition is the difference between cultural practices which are unusual and those which in Britain are illegal.

Lord Laming's inquiry into the murder of Victoria Climbie three years ago exposed ambivalence amongst some officials when it came to dealing with migrants. A certain amount of cultural relativism clouded their judgement. The child protection agencies still have work to do to get to grips with the problem.

A preacher at the church attended by Victoria's great-aunt said Victoria was possessed and he had prayed for her to be delivered from witchcraft or wicked spirits. Most people accepted that was whacky, but some emerging churches clearly were having difficulty accepting it as illegal. One consequence of this has been that the torture Victoria Climbie was subjected to has been repeated.

Nearly five years on a minority of deliverance churches still seem to be struggling with the idea that those who lead worship in the name of any faith must not break the law themselves, or incite others to.

If this debate is to have any meaning then it's particularly important that emerging churches are not cut off from the mainstream. There's strong evidence that it is amongst these isolated congregations where children are most vulnerable to "ndoki" practices.

That's not to say it happens in every African centred church. Far from it. The manner in which worship can appear exuberant can be unsettling to those familiar with Christian worship in the host community. That doesn't make it sinister, unless of course you find all Christian worship sinister.

It shouldn't be forgotten that exorcisms, or the excising of bad spirits, are carried out in the Church of England. These are part and parcel of Christian tradition. Every London diocese has its own designated exorcist. Permission must be sought from a Bishop to carry out an exorcism.

It's self-evident though that the more cut off from any form of accountability new churches are, the more difficult it can be to ensure that when things go wrong there is a mechanism to correct them.

Few people within a congregation will stand up to challenge a powerful pastor. If you put into that mix the anxiety of refugees and asylum seekers, some of whom will have been tortured, abused and mistreated in the past you have a recipe for vulnerability. In the French speaking Congolese community this is compounded by a significant language barrier.

When three adults were convicted last year at the Old Bailey of torturing an eight-year-old Angolan orphan known to the court as child B the Met Police decided to take proactive measures to find out how widespread a problem they could be facing.

The evidence had shown that over several months child B was cut with a knife on her chest, beaten, kicked, starved, whipped with a belt and had chilli peppers rubbed in her eyes when she too was accused of being a witch..

In the wake of the Laming inquiry the Met had already commissioned a report from two people deeply involved in previous child abuse scandals involving African children to investigate this unknown territory.

The report remains unpublished, one must assume because the Met police remain very nervous about revealing its contents. The researchers found that although not widespread, there was a significant incidence of ndoki, or witchcraft, in London. They concluded that the practices did put some children at risk and congregations were burying their heads in the sand. They urged the public authorities not to do the same.

Last autumn, Operation Violet which was set up by the Yard's Child Abuse Investigative Command, got Detective Inspector Bob Pull to actively seek out as many emerging Congolese churches as he could amongst the 11,000 strong Congolese community.

His job was then to ensure a coordinated effort to tackle the risk identified in the report, largely through offering advice and training on child protection issues.

Pastor Jules Mahele who has been appointed as spokesman for around 60 of the 80 or so Congolese churches in Britain told me (most are in London and have memberships of anything from a few dozen to a few hundred) that there is a general recognition that there is a problem.

He believes it is particularly an issue in those churches that have so far shown an unwillingness to join forces with similar denominational groups to support each other in ensuring that worship does not conflict with the laws of the land.

In a statement released last Friday the Congolese Pastorship said that: "No church using the Bible as its authority can justify any behaviour that puts children at risk of abuse. The practice of ndoki, or witchcraft, which identifies children as possessed by evil spirits, is not a practice Christians find acceptable."

The message couldn't be clearer. Those who claim to be Christian pastors but endorse these practices cannot hide behind their ethnicity as a defence.

The difficulty is anyone can set up a place of worship in this country. The act of collective worship is in effect a private gathering. If abuse takes place it's often away from the place of worship as a result of "guidance" from a so called pastor. Policing the private domain is notoriously difficult; you only have to look at the problems of tackling domestic violence.

There are simply no easy answers to dealing with this. It requires a cultural shift so that the mores and norms of the broader society are accepted and practiced [sic] by these churches themselves.

This needs public education and unambiguous sanction when wrongdoing comes to light. Last week's arrest is a positive step, because it shows that more people within these churches are becoming vigilant and questioning.

As a world city London has to face the illegal consequences of religious practices that some migrants bring with them from their countries of origin. We should neither accept them, nor ignore them to appease cultural sensibilities.

On the other hand hysterical reactions to individual cases which stigmatise whole communities will do little to reduce the risks to the most vulnerable.

last updated: 15/08/06


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