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Kenyan cult deaths at 73, president likens them to terrorism

Kenyan President William Ruto on Monday compared the dozens of starvation deaths among the followers of a pastor in the south of the country with the results of terrorist acts, as the new death toll rose to 73.

He maintained that the pastor, Paul Makenzi, who is in police custody, should be in prison.

"What we are seeing ... is akin to terrorism," Ruto said. "Mr. Makenzi ... pretends and postures as a pastor when in fact he is a terrible criminal."

Makenzi was arrested on suspicion of telling his followers to fast to death in order to meet Jesus. A group of emaciated people were rescued alive, but some of them later died. Authorities then turned their attention to dozens of shallow graves marked with crosses on Makenzi's 800-acre ranch.

The total death toll now stands at 73, with 26 new bodies exhumed on Monday, Malindi sub-county police chief John Kemboi told the Associated Press.

Kemboi said investigators had received reinforcements and were able to cover more ground. At least four people died after they and others were discovered starving at the Good News International Church last week.

A tipoff from members of the public led police to raid the pastor's property in Malindi, where they found 15 emaciated people, including the four who later died. The followers said they were starving on the pastor's instructions in order to "meet Jesus."

Kenya Cult Deaths
The exhumed bodies of victims of a religious cult are laid out in the village of Shakahola, near the coastal city of Malindi, in southern Kenya Sunday, April 23, 2023.  / AP

Police had been told there were dozens of shallow graves spread across Makenzi's farm and digging started on Friday.

The Kenyan Red Cross Society on Sunday said 112 people had been reported missing at a tracing desk set up at Malindi, where the pastor's main church was located.

Makenzi remains in custody and a court allowed investigators to hold him for two weeks as a probe into the deaths continues.

The pastor has been arrested twice before, in 2019 and in March of this year, in relation to the deaths of children. Each time, he was released on bond, and both cases are still proceeding through the court.

Local politicians have urged the court not to release him this time, decrying the spread of cults in the Malindi area.

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.

Last year, the body of a British woman who died at the house of a different cult leader while on holiday in Kenya was exhumed, the family's lawyer said. Luftunisa Kwandwalla, 44, was visiting the coastal city of Mombasa when she died in August 2020, and was buried a day later, but her family has claimed foul play.

AFP contributed to this report.

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