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Kenyan Authorities Arrest Second Pastor Linked to Starvation Deaths

Detectives escort Ezekiel Ombok Odero, head of New Life Prayer Centre and Church in Kilifi County, at the police headquarters for investigations into deaths linked to another Christian cult, in Mombassa, Kenya, April 27, 2023.

Police in Kenya have arrested another pastor accused of indoctrinating followers with extremist beliefs after a number of deaths were reported at his church.

The arrest of Ezekiel Obmbok Odero comes as investigators find more bodies of members of the Good News International Church. The pastor of that church, Paul Mackenzie, is accused of persuading at least 100 people to starve themselves to death.

Odero is accused of preaching radical beliefs, leading to an undetermined number of deaths at his church in southeastern Kenya. Odero is pastor of the New Life Prayer Center and Church at Mavueni, in Kilifi County.

Rhoda Onyancha, Kenya Coast regional coordinator, said Odero’s arrest relates to allegations of deaths at the church that have been reported in morgues and other institutions.

“We have also taken action and closed down the prayer center going forward,” Onyancha said. “ So we are urging and giving information to the public that the prayer center has been closed down, and whoever was in there has been cleared out.”

Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki said over 100 people were holed up in the church Thursday and are assisting the police with their investigation.

Authorities did not say how many people died at the church or release their causes of death.

Odero had claimed to work miracles, and his church was believed to attract many people who were desperately sick. One woman who attended a different church led by Odero told VOA she did not hear about issues regarding fasting but said she saw people there who were very weak and were hopeful they would be cured.

Jared Magolo, the lawyer representing Odero, told journalists authorities have yet to file charges against the preacher.

“We have talked with the officers, and they are doing their work,” Magolo said. “They are investigating. They will let us know what is going on.”

Odero’s arrest comes a week after authorities uncovered mass graves in Shakahola forest, where members of the Good News International Church starved themselves to death.

Relatives of followers of a Christian cult called Good News International Church, gather outside the mortuary in Malindi, Kilifi county, Kenya, April 27, 2023
Relatives of followers of a Christian cult called Good News International Church, gather outside the mortuary in Malindi, Kilifi county, Kenya, April 27, 2023

Paul Mackenzie is in custody for preaching that death by starvation would allow his followers to meet Jesus Christ.

Investigators say the pastor will face charges of radicalization and terrorism.

Omwanza Ombati, a Nairobi-based lawyer, said the director of public prosecutions must present a strong case against the preachers in order to obtain convictions.

“The standard of proof in criminal cases is beyond a reasonable doubt, so for either Mackenzie or Ezekiel to be convicted, the DPP must have watertight evidence,” Ombati said. “There are many deceased persons involved in this, and each case is judged on its own. ... It’s a fairly complex case in terms of prosecuting, gathering evidence, preparing charges, processing the crime scene and presenting a good case before a court of law.”

Kenyan security agencies have been blamed for failing to take action against churches and pastors who preach dangerous doctrines and exploit people.

They are also accused of moving too slowly to save lives in Shakahola forest, where most of Mackenzie’s followers had gone to die.

Omabti said the government must start following the activities of the places of worship and their teachings.

“The government must now crack the whip not only on Mackenzie or Ezekiel but on many other churches, who they have licensed, who are conducting very bizarre sort of services things like that,” Ombati said. “You can see it on social media, even people going to church, and they are told there will be money coming to their phones if they just wave their phone, very ridiculous and silly things. So if the government is serious about it, [it] should crack down on everybody who is using religion on gullible masses.”

In the last seven days, at least 100 bodies have been exhumed in the Shakahola forest.

According to the Kenyan Red Cross, more than 350 people are still missing as the search for more bodies and survivors continues in the coastal region.