YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Gabon’s Catholic Church says more must be done in the country to stop ritualistic killings, which are carried out by witch doctors and their collaborators in the central African country.

Gabon is nominally Christian, with over 40 percent of the population claiming to be Catholic and another 45 percent belonging to other Christian denominations, but many people still also practice animist religions and visit witch doctors.

According to the Association to Fight Ritual Crimes (ALCR), human organs, human flesh and human blood are believed to bring success or power by many in Gabon.

Bishop Jean-Vincent Ondo Eyene of Oyem, in northern Gabon, says the Church cannot stay silent in the face of ritual killings that continue to haunt the central African country.

In an exclusive interview with the Catholic news website Cath.ch on October 5, the bishop said ritual killings were on the rise in the country.

He said the Catholic Church, through its Justice and Peace Commission has since 2012 been engaged in the fight against ritual killings.

“It is not part of the cultural habits of the Gabonese people,” Ondo Eyene said, adding Gabon’s openness to the world has brought about the practice.

“There is need to discuss with the authorities to see how to put an end to the practice. Human life is sacred and cannot be made banal,” he said.

The ALCR says the killings always peak in the build-up to elections.

“It’s before elections and ministerial reshuffles that the vilest crimes are committed and the capital empties of certain kinds of politicians who go to the interior to carry out witchcraft,” Pastor Francois Bibang, a member of the ALCR told Reuters in 2013.

Ondo Eyene agrees.

“These crimes are committed very frequently during elections or other special events…That is why we try to be very vigilant in the build up to elections to start denouncing these crimes and draw the attention of the authorities to their existence,” the bishop said.

Gabon is scheduled to have legislative elections early next year.

Jean Elvis Ebang Ondo, the president of the ALCR, spoke to Vatican Radio about the practice of human sacrifice in Gabon in 2014.

“They would kill a person; they would take away what is commonly known here as ‘spare parts’ meaning the parts of the body required by the witch doctor. The body is then buried somewhere in the bush and six months after, they come back to recover the bones,” he said.

Ebang Ondo’s son and a friend were taken, murdered, and mutilated in a ritual killing.

The association says that between 2011 and 2014, at least 157 people were killed in Gabon for their body parts. It said 40 mutilated corpses were found in 2013, 38 in 2014, 45 in 2015 and about 60 in 2016, when an historically close presidential election took place.

The vast majority of the victims – around 70 percent – are children.

The Church stands up to the scourge

In 2016, the Catholic bishops in Gabon used the month of December to pray against ritual killings and other forms of violence, even setting aside December 28 – the feast of the Holy Innocents – as a particular day of prayer for the victims of these heinous crimes.

Besides prayers, the church also engaged in exposés and roundtable discussions to drive home the message of the evil ingrained in the phenomenon of ritual killings.

Despite campaigns by the church and the ALCR, public authorities in Gabon have not made addressing the problem a priority, which Ebang Ondo said shows public authorities are not only condoning the practice, but also perpetuating the crime.

“The authorities in place encourage this phenomenon,” he told Radio France Internationale.

“Politicians kill in this country for various reasons that have to do with money and power,” Ebang Ondo continued.

These accusations gained credence after Bruno Ben Moubamba – a former prime minister – was fired by the current government after serving as Minister of Housing and Urban Development.

Shortly after he was dismissed on September 7, 2017, he wrote a post on his Facebook page insinuating that he was sacked because he refused to commit such ritual crimes.

“I don’t care…I prefer to quit the government than be forced to commit crimes to stay in power,” Moubamba wrote.

Ondo Eyene says the Church will continue to push for a stop to the heinous crime.

“Each time we notice that despite our condemnation, there is once more a crime committed, we must make our voice once again say: This has got to stop,” he said.

In 2015, the government of Gabon has published a penal code to punish “blood crimes.”

The code punishes blood crimes involving the removal of body parts and other mutilations with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

“We must put an end to this phenomenon that tarnishes the image of our country,” President Omar Bongo said at the time.

Although saying the legislation was a good step, the ALCR says the law still needs to be enforced.

Most often, the perpetrators go unpunished. The ALCR said several factors are to blame for this: The families of the victims are often threatened and pressured into not pursuing the cases; many officials in the government are corrupt, if not complicit in the killings; and the high cost of investigating the murders, which involves sophisticated forensics and autopsies, deters resource-strapped police departments from properly looking into the crimes.