By Antonio Anup Gonsalves
Indigenous Papuans performing a traditional dance. Credit: Diocese of Daru-Kiunga.
“I encourage all our citizens not to get into this bad habit of accusing innocent and defenseless people of sorcery, resulting in torturing and killing,” Bishop Arnold Orowae of Wabag, capital of Enga province in Papua New Guinea's highlands, said in a Dec. 9 statement.
“This is a moral evil that should not be practiced,” he added.
Nearly all of Papua New Guinea's population is Christian, and 27 percent is Catholic, yet many Papuan Christians integrate indigenous beliefs and practices into their religious life.
Some indigenous Papuans do not believe in misfortune and accidents, and attribute them to sorcery, while the accusation can also be used for revenge or envy. Amnesty International reports that women are six times more likely to be accused of sorcery than are men.
Bishop Orowae said the accused are often women who are “vulnerable and defenseless, and people run around aimlessly taking pleasure in accusing, torturing, and even killing them.”
“No one is there to defend these defenseless women,” Bishop Orowae lamented. “It is saddening to hear and experience such brutal killings.”
In August, the country's Institute of National Affairs told Pacific Beat that much of the sorcery-related violence is committed by young men in “power plays” in their rural communities.
“In this age and time we cannot continue to act and behave like barbaric people who have no respect for life and who kill to protect their territories,” Bishop Orowae stated.
Witch hunts begin at funerals of the deceased, or the bedside of the ill, Richard Eves, an anthropologist with the Australian National University, told The Diplomat, an Asia-Pacific current affairs magazine, earlier this year. The magazine noted: “With limited medical or scientific understandings of health and illness, communities find few alternative explanations to counter their deeply embedded fear of supernatural evils.”
Bishop Orowae said: “People are still ignorant and would not want to accept that people can die at any time through sickness or damage done to their body. Even healthy people can die of sicknesses.”
“Where does this come from?” he asked. “It is either pure jealousy, or it is used as a means to accuse people for revenge.”
Bishop Orowae, who is president of the Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands bishops' conference, reminded local residents that “respect for life should be in the conscience of all people regardless of who that person is.”
“We have laws of the country that govern us,” he stated. “We have the Christian faith that also determines our way of life in following Jesus, proclaiming his truth and living his life.”
Papua New Guinea's 1971 Sorcery Act criminalized the practice of sorcery, and accepted the accusation of sorcery as a defense in cases of murder, but the act was repealed in 2013.
Its appeal, however, was accompanied by a new law which included sorcery-related killings among crimes penalized by capital punishment, as well as aggravated rape and armed robbery.
Despite this, witch hunts and the murder of supposed witches continues, with many police failing to stop the violence; the country's Constitutional and Law Reform Commission estimates 150 sorcery-related deaths annually. Many cases go unreported due to non-collaboration with officials, and fear of reprisal.
In light of this trend, Bishop Orowae thanked local administration and police for recently saving three defenseless women from mob violence in Teremanda, a village of Enga province.
“God has given us this life as a gift and we should respect it, and only God can take it back,” Bishop Orowae further explained. “He does not give us permission to take away the lives of others, even the unborn, the disabled, the criminals, the unwanted, the sick.”
In January, the Church in Papua New Guinea held a seminar to tackle the epidemic of sorcery-related violence, at which Fr. Franco Zocca, an Italian missionary and sociologist, told attendees that “only scientific enlightenment and a massive education effort can help overcome sorcery beliefs” in the country.
Fr. Zocca has coordinated a four-year research study on sorcery in Papua New Guinea. The aim of the conference was to explore the Church's attitude toward magic and sorcery, as well as data collected by the Melanesian Institute, which studies indigenous cultures in the region.
The Church is working to provide education and catechesis to indigenous Papua New Guineans to help them overcome superstitious beliefs.
“It gives a bad image of this country and its people,” Bishop Orowae concluded. “Let’s promote the good side of our lives and country, and do away with the bad practices.”