June 16, 2006
Zimbabwe's social welfare department has divulged details of a religious cult led by a teenager, which abused children after their parents forced them to join.
The cult, 'Mudzimu Unoyera', or Holy Spirit, had acquired 130 child followers before the police moved in and arrested joint founders Mai Maria, or Mother Mary, and Enwas Nyanhete, referred to as 'Baba Josefa', or Father Joseph, in April this year. They claimed to be the parents of Girl Jesus, 13, the cult's spiritual leader.
Both Mai Maria and Nyanhete have been charged with child abuse and assaulting members of a crack police unit that raided the cult's premises in Guruve, 120km north of the capital, Harare. The children have been placed in a safe house at an undisclosed location.
According to a welfare department report, the sect had "features of a Doomsday cult" and there were fears that its leaders might induce mass deaths among the children, some of whom were only one year old. The department was alerted by police after a parent sought help to retrieve his child.
The cult had managed to attract followers throughout Zimbabwe and in other countries, and "unfortunately, children have been captured and trapped in the process", said the report.
"There is a case of open abuse at Mudzimu Unoyera - the subtle weapon of religion is being used to offset juveniles from mainstream society," said a report prepared by the social welfare department's probation officer in Guruve.
Girl Jesus, who was being breastfed by her 'mother' before she was arrested, was believed to have wielded powers of prophecy and healing, and spoke a strange language called 'Tritnoi', which she also taught young recruits at the cult's shrine, which was set up in 1998.
The report said most of the parents who handed their children to the sect did so for promised material gain. "Gullible and greedy parents have sacrificed the future of their children for temporary gain. One good example is that of a person running a business: for the business to prosper, he/she has to surrender a child to [Girl] Jesus. This is the reason why the children are flocking to the shrine."
Mai Maria and Nyanhete received gifts from parents who had surrendered their children to the sect.
The department said it was concerned that the children, who had been removed from their families, given new names and even made to sing the national anthem in 'Tritnoi' had "lost their personal identity".
It was also concerned over the unhealthy conditions the children were living in - they were not properly fed and most were found to be suffering from various skin ailments. They were also barred from accessing formal education.
The cult's co-founder, Nyanhete, who is out on bail, denied allegations of abuse and told IRIN that that the young children had been looked after by older girls, some of whom were 17 years old.
Nyanhete admitted that they had even held one-year-olds, insisting that the parents had voluntarily handed them over and would periodically visit them. "There is nothing wrong with that - we accepted the children because Girl Jesus would have directed that we do so. It is the work of God."
But parents who attempted to reclaim their children met with resistance by cult supervisors. "On one occasion, one parent from Zambia had to involve the court to get the custody of his children," wrote the probation officer.
The social welfare unit also expressed concern that Girl Jesus might have been sexually abused and "experienced negative parental grooming" by Nyanhete, who shared her bed.
Nyanhete dismissed the possibility. "I shared the same bed with her before the police took her away because that was what was ordained by the Holy Spirit, and how could I defile her by sleeping with her, my own daughter?" he said to IRIN.
The children, now placed in a safe house, would be given medical treatment and counseling. A Harare-based children's rights NGO, who did not want to be named, told IRIN that their and the department of social welfare's challenge was to make sure the children were adequately prepared for reintegration into society.