Kenyan authorities exhumed 16 more bodies Tuesday, bringing the death toll at the Good News International Church to 89. But the number of victims is expected to rise as investigators search for more bodies in a forest along the coast. The government has promised to take stern action against the leader of the cult and those who promoted his teachings.
Kenyan authorities continue to recover the bodies of people who, following the teachings of pastor Paul Mackenzie, starved themselves to death in the hope of meeting their creator.
The deaths of Good News International Church followers have caught the attention of top government officials, including President William Ruto.
Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki paid a visit Tuesday to Shakahola forest, where Mackenzie's followers were buried in shallow graves.
"This is a clear example of misuse of the fundamental rights to the freedom of worship and religion which is guaranteed by the constitution of our country and the laws of our country," Kindiki said. "The purported use of the Bible to kill people, to cause widespread massacre of innocent civilians cannot be tolerated under any law on Earth."
Kenyan authorities arrested Mackenzie last week and remains detained in the coastal town of Malindi. No charges have been filed thus far, as authorities seek more time to complete their investigation.
Kenyan officials and some followers say Mackenzie has radicalized his followers in Kilifi County for years.
Mvera Kazungu, a community worker in Kilifi County, began reporting Mackenzie's activities to authorities in 2018, particularly when children refused to attend school, but says the so-called pastor continued to open more places of worship and recruit more people.
"We raised the issue that the children's department came in, but in the end, his church in Malindi was locked down and he still went on to open other stations in Malindi Sub-County," Kazungu said. "One of the churches was razed down by the community. Then he fled to Shakahola where he has been having his church there and continued radicalizing the community members."
According to Kazungu, she learned about the followers' deaths from a relative, who discovered his two grandchildren dead in the church and one alive in March. The three children's parents are still missing.
The community worker said her complaints about the church have been ignored, but she hopes the cult leader will be prosecuted.
"I believe this time ‘round, this thing is coming to an end but we don't know because I remember a video going around him, telling the police officers that like this is not in vain something bad will happen to people," Kazungu said. "So you see, he is already apprehended but he is still threatening (people)."
Kenya’s public prosecutor, Noordin Haji, said Monday that Mackenzie will face charges of radicalization and terrorism.
Christian-majority Kenya separates the state and the church in running the affairs of the country, but there is growing pressure to monitor the activities of some churches and religious leaders.
Kindiki says the government must develop policies to deal with rogue churches that promote dangerous ideologies.
"I am not convinced beyond doubt that religious extremism is now part of the greatest five threats that we face as a country and this opportunity is sad as it must help us fix and arrest the problem from ever occurring on the soil of our country ever again," Kindiki said.
The government has assured the country that Mackenzie and those who supported him will be held accountable for the deaths of his followers.