YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – At least 73 bodies have been exhumed from mass graves in Kenya’s Shakahola forest, in the east of the country. The bodies, including children, are believed to be members of a Christian cult whose leader had manipulated them into believing that if they starved themselves to death, they would meet Christ.

The country’s Catholic bishops have expressed disgust at the “starvation cult” and called for stiffer regulations in creating religious groups.

“It is very unfortunate that we are witnessing a worrying reality in the country where so-called prophets and cultic leaders have mastered the art of exploiting gullible Kenyans in the name of religion,” the bishops said in an April 25 statement.

They asked how Pastor Paul Mackenzie’s church could have been “allowed to perpetuate its dangerous doctrine for such a long time, leading to the loss of so many lives with the state security machinery completely unaware.”

Mackenzie, a controversial preacher at Good News International Church, indoctrinated his followers to abandon “earthly life” and go to his 800-acre farm in Shakahola village for a fast “to meet Jesus.”

According to Kenyan police, the pastor advised his followers to stop mingling with anyone from the “outside” world if they had any desire to go to heaven. They also were required to quit their jobs, abandon their education, destroy all documents given to them by the government such as IDs and birth certificates, and come together for fasting.

On April 13, the government authorized a rescue operation after two children reportedly starved and suffocated to death on March 16 and 17. On March 23, Mackenzie was arraigned in court, but was released after the payment of $74 in bail.

The police search at the site led to the exhumation of more bodies – 73 have been exhumed so far – but the Red Cross says at least 112 other people are still missing, implying the death toll could rise.

The search is ongoing, both for the bodies and the survivors of the cult. Some of the survivors still refuse to eat for fear of what Mackenzie had said could be apocalyptic damnation.

“Religion cannot be and should not be the cause of people losing life,” said Archbishop Anthony Muheria of Nyeri on Citizen TV.

Kenyan leaders have reacted angrily to the unfolding drama, with President William Ruto comparing it to terrorism.

Interior Minister, Kithure Kindiki called the incident “a horrendous blight on our conscience” and promised the “the most severe punishment of the perpetrators of the atrocity on so many innocent souls,” as well as “tighter regulation [including self-regulation] of every church, mosque, temple or synagogue going forward.”

“The unfolding Shakahola Forest Massacre is the clearest abuse of the constitutionally enshrined human right to freedom of worship. Prima facie, large- scale crimes under Kenyan law as well as international law have been committed,” Kindiki said in a tweet on April 23.

He said enough security officers have been deployed and “the entire 800-acre forest is sealed off and declared a scene of the crime.”

The Catholic Church called for tighter regulations, saying in their Monday statement “It is our considered opinion that if a strong mechanism of regulating religions was in place, the long arm of the law would have stopped Pastor Mackenzie from taking advantage of Kenyans to engage in acts of mass suicide.”

The bishops called for a review of the proposed state laws to make sure that rogue pastors are exposed and punished.

“Such a review should help to identify the weak legal and religious links that cult leaders have been exploiting to brainwash their unsuspecting followers,” the bishops’ statement said.

In 2022, the government of Kenya lifted a moratorium on the registration of churches, introducing stricter measures in a bid to streamline religious groupings in the country.

The measures require that for anyone to qualify as a cleric, that person must provide a Diploma of Degree in Theology, a certificate of good conduct, a letter of recommendation from a recognized umbrella religious organization and a sworn affidavit to prove affiliation. The legislation also requires religious bodies to declare all their programs, a location and physical address, furnish the registrar with either a tax compliance or tax exemption certificate; remain open to inspection by the registrar, declare assets and liabilities and provide a yearly statement on the sources of income.