The death toll in an investigation linked to a Kenyan cult that practiced starvation to “meet Jesus Christ” has surpassed 300 after 19 new bodies were found Tuesday, a senior official said. Police believe most of the bodies found in a forest near the Indian Ocean town of Malindi belong to followers of Paul Nthenge Mackenzie, a taxi driver-turned-preacher who has been in police custody since April 14.
He is due to face charges of “terrorism” in the case which has rocked the East African nation.
“The death toll has now risen to 303 after the 19 bodies were exhumed,” regional commissioner Rhoda Onyancha said.
The toll remains provisional, and the authorities in the East African country fear the true number of dead could be much higher. The search for mass graves is still underway in the Shakahola forest, where the first victims — some dead, others alive but weakened and emaciated — were discovered on April 13.
Since then, the series of grim discoveries have revealed a macabre scandal, dubbed the “Shakahola forest massacre”. More than 600 people have been reported missing by concerned relatives.
Police believe that most of the bodies exhumed were those of Good News International Church followers, an evangelical sect founded in 2003 by the self-proclaimed “pastor” Mackenzie, who advocated fasting until death in order to “meet Jesus”.
The 50-year-old founder of the Good News International Church turned himself in on April 14, after police acting on a tip-off first entered Shakahola forest. While starvation appears to be the main cause of death, some of the victims — including children — were strangled, beaten or suffocated, according to chief government pathologist Johansen Oduor.
Questions have been raised about how Mackenzie, a father of seven, managed to evade law enforcement despite a history of extremism and previous legal cases. The horrific saga has stunned Kenyans and led President William Ruto to set up a commission of inquiry into the deaths and a task force to review regulations governing religious bodies.
Another pastor accused of links to Mackenzie and to the bodies found in the forest was released on bail at a court hearing.
Ezekiel Odero, a high-profile and wealthy televangelist, is being investigated on charges including murder, aiding suicide, abduction, radicalization, crimes against humanity, child cruelty, fraud and money laundering.
In all, at least 35 people suspected of involvement have been arrested, according to police who say 95 of the church’s followers have been recovered alive since the start of operations. On Monday, 65 of them were brought before a court in the city of Mombasa to face charges of “attempted suicide”, because they refused to eat or drink.
Prosecutors have asked that they be detained so that they can be examined and forced to eat. A court decision is expected on Thursday.
The death cult case has rekindled debate on the regulation of religious worship in this predominantly Christian country, which has 4,000 “churches”, according to official figures.
Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki has announced that the authorities would turn the Shakahola forest into a “place of remembrance… so that Kenyans and the world will not forget what happened.”