Evangelical leader warns against spiritual extremism, as leader of Kenyan cult charged for hunger deaths

By Jim Olang |
Paul Mackenzie
Cult leader Paul Mackenzie after his arrest for presiding over the burials of his followers after starving them to death. | Citizen TV Kenya / Youtube Screenshot

Following the discovery of more than 400 victims buried in shallow graves in a remote forest in eastern Kenya, a cult leader has been charged with murder. Paul Mackenzie and 29 other defendants pled not guilty when they appeared in court in the coastal town of Malindi. Mackenzie is accused of torturing children, committing acts of terror, accusations that he denied.

The deceased were followers of Mackenzie, and the authorities claim that they may have perished from malnutrition, strangling, suffocation, or blunt force trauma, among other possible causes. Haunting stories are shared by survivors and the families of the departed, some of whom claim that Mackenzie had promoted fasting as a way to "meet Jesus."

When the scandal initially broke, Bishop Dr. David Oginde, who currently chairs the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission of Kenya and formerly served as Chair of the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya, highlighted important tenets of Christianity while warning against the ways in which heretic preachers misuse them to prey on vulnerable people.

“This is a sad and most unfortunate story about yet another incident of abuse of a noble faith practice. It is a case of a cultic leader taking advantage of perhaps desperate individuals. It is most likely the consequence of religious extremism that demands extraordinary measures to experience God's favour,” Oginde commented.

It has been reported that Mackenzie’s subjects were not allowed to leave the forest, where they suffered from extreme malnourishment and cruelty. Neema, a former member of Mackenzie's Good News International Church, is featured in a BBC Africa report describing her experience of being taken captive in the wilderness, where she was raped and starved. She explained the harsh living circumstances under which followers had to rely on foraging for food and water in order to survive. Neema and her two friends overcame the perils and stringent communication restrictions to escape, ultimately receiving assistance and medical care.

The findings from this case are still receiving a lot of attention from around the world even while investigations and court cases go on. The church was formally designated as an "organised criminal group" on January 31, 2024, by Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki in a government gazette notice. It was after this notification that the inquiry into the fatalities has progressed.

Expanding on his warning against spiritual predators, Oginde noted that in various religions, fasting is observed as a regular practice.

“Muslims have recently concluded Ramadhan, during which they observed prayer and fasting. Within Christianity, fasting holds a central significance. Numerous Biblical figures, including Jesus, regularly engaged in fasting. Jesus both taught and exemplified the potency of prayer and fasting, stressing that certain challenges can only be overcome through these practices,” he stated.

“Regrettably, this teaching has led some to erroneously believe that the more daunting the issue, the longer or more severe the fast should be. There seems to be an implicit belief that fasting is a means to compel God to act in ways He might not otherwise do for us," he added.

Some take it to extremes and even boast about the number of days they can fast and hope to attain special favour and blessings, he commented and warned that “this is a terrible fallacy.”

“The teaching of Scripture is that God blesses or answers our prayers out of His love and mercy. His favour cannot be purchased through any of our human sacrifices. Instead, fasting is a sacrificial way through which we lay aside a critical component of life in order to humble ourselves before God. It is the taming of our bodies in order to reflect and meditate on our relationship with God,” Oginde explained.

In difficult times, however, it is an unfortunate reality that those who suffer of poverty or despair easily fall prey to unscrupulous spiritual leaders whether they be pastors, cult leaders and even witchdoctors, he commented.

“They promise instant breakthroughs to those who can take extreme actions such as long fasting or generous giving,” he warned, and said, “It behoves every one of us to be vigilant and stay away from such predators.”