Security personnel carry a rescued young person from the forest in Shakahola, outside the coastal town of Malindi, on April 23, 2023. Twenty-one bodies have been exhumed in Kenya while investigating a cult whose followers are believed to have starved themselves to death, police sources said on April 22, 2023, warning the toll could rise. (Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP
(AFP) – Kenyan police resumed a grisly search Monday in a forest in the country’s east where the bodies of 51 suspected cult members have been exhumed from shallow graves.
Police said the search inland from Malindi was continuing not just for bodies but for possible survivors of a movement whose pastor reportedly told followers to starve themselves in order to “meet Jesus”.
A full-scale investigation has been launched into the Good News International Church and its leader since police stormed the forest at Shakahola and discovered the first bodies last week.
Over the weekend, dozens more corpses were unearthed and an 800-acre (325-hectare) area of woodland declared a crime scene as authorities seek to understand the true scale of the so-called “Shakahola Forest Massacre”.
Inspector General of Police Japhet Koome is expected to visit the site on Monday where teams clad in overalls have been scouring for more burial pits and possible cult survivors.
There are fears some members could be hiding from authorities in the surrounding bushland and at risk of death if not quickly found.
A number of people have already been rescued and taken to hospital in Malindi on the Indian Ocean coast.
A rights group which tipped off police about the movement and its extreme practices said at least one of those rescued had refused to eat despite being in clear physical distress.
The Kenya Red Cross said 112 people had been reported missing to its support staff at Malindi.
The cult leader, Makenzie Nthenge, turned himself in to police and was charged last month, according to local media, after two children starved to death in the custody of their parents.
He has since been released on bail of 100,000 Kenyan shillings ($700).
The grim case has gripped national attention and the government has flagged the need for tighter control of religious denominations in a country where rogue pastors and fringe movements have been involved in crime.
Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki, who has announced he would visit the site on Tuesday, described the case as “the clearest abuse of the constitutionally enshrined human right to freedom of worship”.
But attempts to regulate religion in the majority-Christian country have been fiercely opposed in the past as attempts to undermine constitutional guarantees for a division between church and state.
© Agence France-Presse