Saturday, 23 February 2013

So-Called Witches In Papua New Guinea: Victims Of Superstition-Inspired Persecution And Violence

Accused witch in hiding, Walne. 
Back in my Pagan days when I considered myself a Wiccan, I learned about the great Burning Times of the Middle Ages in Europe.  Estimates of how many witches were killed by a plethora of gruesome techniques run from the tens of thousands into the millions.   But at that time I believed that the actual witch killings had ended, that other than persecution and blasphemy charges, the witch hunts were part of our barbaric past as a species.

Well, in later years, I would learn that I was wrong. Women, men and yes, sometimes even children are being accused of being witches and murdered by their own community.

This week, the Global Mail is running a tragic and compelling series on the state of Witchcraft in Papua New Guinea, the latest contribution is What To Do About Witchcraft?
Dame Carol Kidu, a former MP who retired last year as Papua New Guinea’s long-serving minister for community development, says she is deeply concerned by what appears to be a “rapid escalation” in sorcery-related violence — that is, the torture and murder of women mostly, but men too, accused of sorcery or violence. 
Belief in bad magic is common throughout PNG, a Pacific nation of 7 million people, although not all communities respond to it violently. Enduring tradition resists the notion that natural causes, disease, accident or recklessness might be responsible for a death, particularly that of a child or young man. Rather, sorcery or witchcraft is blamed, and in some customs, the perceived evildoer is hunted down, tortured and killed. They are usually the most vulnerable, usually women, and often targeted by opportunists wanting their land.
And the country is predominantly Christian, but obviously not the same kind of Christian as in North America and Europe.
More than 96 per cent of the PNG population identifies as Christian, many meanwhile holding and practicing traditional beliefs. With few other functional institutions in many communities, churches and priests have immense influence. 
While the Catholic church has the largest national congregation, fundamentalist groups appear to have an increasing influence in some communities, and Dame Carol is one of several expert commentators who raises concerns about “fire and brimstone” preaching reinforcing traditional demonic beliefs.
And, like the hostile situation towards gays and lesbians in Uganda, it could be hard for Christians to argue with the locals, lay and clergy, about witchcraft.  The Bible itself commands them to not let witches live... a literal reading of course.
You shall not suffer a witch to live. - Exodus 22:18
All this after a hundred years of missionisation. 
“This is a society that had gone through over a hundred years of missionisation and ‘pacification’. The societies we are dealing with have had very limited exposure beyond their traditional world, and modern technology has made that exposure sometimes very confusing and confronting. Responsible leadership is essential but that alone is not enough.
But the Catholic church is now trying to solve this problem.  Not just by spreading Catholicism - that's apparently been tried for 100 years - but by giving the locals information about the true scientific, non-superstitious causes of disease.
Bishop Bal’s approach works at the grassroots to help people understand the causes of illness and death, intervening with this information before or during a funeral, before sanguma [witchcraft] allegations start to emerge. The program works with grieving families to help them deal with their emotions and ‘take ownership’ of the death of a family member. It also promotes law and order in communities.
Perhaps a more effective approach would be along the same lines as that being developed in the African nation of Malawi by local Secular Humanist George Thindwa.  In Malawi, there is an effort to dispel dangerous superstitious ideas of witchcraft with scientific principles and Secular Humanism. 

A secular approach required? Enter the secular organization Doctors Without Borders:
MÉDECINS SANS FRONTIÈRES: Is pushing for a comprehensive response to family and sexual violence in PNG, and provides medical and psychological support to victims of attack in Lae and Tari.
Still, this situation is so horrendous that if Catholics like Bishop Bal can help in any way - especially by spreading scientific knowledge rather than theology - then please, go ahead!

This article is in response to an overwhelming reader response to a previous article on witchcraft, It's 2013, And They're Burning Witches - 2013! - my sentiments exactly.  Both reports contain pictures that are arresting, brutal, depressing and sure to elicit an emotional response.


  1. Great post. I thought you might like my machinima animation about The Wise Woman, The Witch
    Bright Blessings

  2. Thanks for your comment.

    I've actually started a weekly series on witchcraft around the world. Mostly having to do with the negative aspects of witchcraft and witchcraft belief. Wicca isn't in this because, although believing in the supernatural, doesn't produce the kind of senseless violence as these other forms of witchcraft.

    I liked the movie. I think I may have enjoyed it a bit more though back in my Wiccan days - being an atheist now I don't get the same chills and tingling as I used to when considering Wicca and Magick - as I no longer believe there is anything to the paranormal.

    Anyway, thanks again and good work on the film.


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