Yes, We Can Stop the War on Witches

 By Mitch Horowitz

Rather than fading into the distant past, witch hunts have become a shocking and growing facet of twenty-first century life. The victims are mostly children and women falsely accused of practicing “black magic,” and targeted for mob violence and often brutal murder, including public burning.

Artwork by Tim Botta

Artwork by Tim Botta

This crisis is unfolding around the world, from west and central Africa, to India, to Latin America, to the southwest Pacific, to the Middle East, and sometimes in Western nations, often within immigrant communities

When hearing of anti-witchery violence, people generally voice despair over the resilience of ancient fears and hatreds. Grim as it is, however, witchcraft-related violence can be curbed, if not eliminated, within our generation

In nations where people are threatened, police forces, governments, NGOs, Catholic and other parishes, and community leaders have demonstrated resolve to combat these abuses. We can, as I’ve noted in a hash tag #StopTheWarOnWitches.

Here are some of the ways anti-witchery violence is being challenged globally, and further steps we must take:

Following a lobbying campaign by Safe Child Africa, one Nigerian state recently outlawed accusing children of witchcraft—which often triggers violence, shunning, and abandonment, creating a crisis of homeless children. Other Nigerian states are considering or have enacted laws to shield children from such charges, and the federal government has condemned anti-witchery violence. Countries across Africa and the southwestern Pacific should follow suit. Nations like the Solomon Islands that still criminalize witchcraft should strike down those laws, which can rationalize violence.

Papua New Guinea, which has experienced thousands of anti-witch attacks and murders in the past decade, recently struck down a law that allowed attackers to claim anti-witch vigilantism as a defense. Unfortunately, the Pacific nation has also permitted cases against accused attackers to stagnate in court. To be sound, justice must be timely.

A 2012 British government report on combating faith-based violence against children provides a valuable guide to instructing the police in signs of abuse, asking religious leaders to condemn violence, and protecting vulnerable witnesses. Safe Child Africa has trained 48 Nigerian law-enforcers in combatting child-related faith abuse. Police indifference to crimes of witch hunting must also be tackled, especially in traditional societies where officers themselves may share beliefs about “black magic.”

In a promising model, a 2010 Oxfam International report noted that some Catholic parishes in Papua New Guinea have been teaching congregants about the natural causes of death and illness (common triggers for anti-witch paranoia), providing shelter to accused witches, and denying the sacraments to those who accuse others of sorcery.

No African congregation wants to feel dictated to by the West, but Western branches of Pentecostal and charismatic Christian congregations must work closely with the more fervent ministries of their denominations among African and immigrant communities to foster an understanding of how “exorcisms” can spiral into deadly abuse. Western ecclesiastical bodies can specifically enact prohibitions against for-profit exorcisms.

In the last decade, Safe Child Africa has reached about 500,000 people through radio and television programs, books, and music. Awareness is growing.

The United Nations and international human-rights groups should start compiling yearly statistics on crimes committed against accused witches. We’re severely hampered in understanding the scale of this crisis when our most recent global data are now six years out of date.

Most importantly, witchcraft-related violence should be branded as hate crimes by international courts, NGOs, and anywhere in the world (including the United States) where anti-hate statutes exist, either on national or municipal levels. A pillar of modern hate-crime statutes is that a victim need only be perceived as a member of a given group. This is especially important since most of these victims have no part in witchcraft or anything related. Branding today’s anti-witchery violence as a hate crime is vital to recognizing and combating it.

You can help: support Safe Child Africa, and each time you encounter a responsible news report of anti-witchery violence, share it with the hash tag: #StopTheWarOnWitches

This is one battle for human dignity we can win in our generation.


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Mitch Horowitz is a PEN Award-winning historian and the author of Occult America and One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life.  To learn more about witchcraft-related violence, read Mitch’s The Persecution of Witches, 21st-Century Style and Ghosts of Salem. Listen to Mitch discuss violence against witches on Wednesday, Oct 26, on Coast to Coast AM. Visit him at www.MitchHorowiz.com and @MitchHorowitz.