Kenyan police dug up dozens of bodies over the weekend on land owned by a cult leader who allegedly told his followers to starve themselves to death in order to go to heaven, police said.
At least 46 bodies have been exhumed from shallow unmarked graves in the Shakahola forest near Kilifi, a coastal town in eastern Kenya, according to the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation. The entire 800-acre forest has been sealed off and declared a crime scene.
Paul Makenzi, the pastor accused of leading the cult, was arrested on April 14. Makenzi was already under investigation after a 2019 arrest in connection with the deaths of children. He was arrested again in March, but was released on bond both times.
Four other people died after they were found starving last week at his Good News International Church. Police also found 11 emaciated people on the compound after members of the public tipped them off about the cult.
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Kenya is a highly religious country, with approximately 85.5% of Kenyans identifying as Christian and 11% as Muslim, according to the U.S. State Department.
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Kithure Kindiki, the Kenyan Cabinet Secretary for Interior, called the cult an “abuse of the constitutionally enshrined human right to freedom of worship.”
“While the State remains respectful of religious freedom, this horrendous blight on our conscience must lead not only to the most severe punishment of the perpetrator(s) of the atrocity on so many innocent souls, but tighter regulation (including self-regulation) of every church, mosque, temple or synagogue going forward,” Kindiki said in a statement obtained by the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.