Church fights witch hunts in PNG

Fr Philip Gibbs, a priest, anthropologist and researcher, said the Catholic Church has been conducting workshops in parishes to raise awareness about witch hunts and how it is totally contrary to the Christian response to misfortune and death.

Gibbs, who has spent more than four decades in Papua New Guinea, has met surviving victims of accusation and torture, as well as those who have committed witch-related torture and killings.

The Church’s message against witch hunting is delivered with particular emphasis in the Highlands region, where much of the nation’s witch-related violence takes place.

In those communities, many of which are remote, the Catholic bishops have posted anti-witch hunting statements on noticeboards and addressed the issue during Sunday services.

One Catholic bishop, Arnold Orowae, is threatening excommunication for any Catholic who perpetrates a witch hunt.

Although Gibbs said he doesn’t know how many perpetrators have been excommunicated formally, he points out that, “in a way, the people involved excommunicate themselves”.

Although most Papua New Guineans identify as Christian, their Christianity often is mixed with indigenous beliefs, which include magic: both “white magic”, such as medicinal faith healing, and “black magic”, such as hexes and sorcery.

These are so ingrained in Papua New Guinean culture that as recently as 1971 the government passed the Sorcery Act, which instituted prison for witches and, even more problematically, made suspicions of witchcraft a legitimate legal defence for attacking someone.

The Sorcery Act was repealed in 2013.

But old habits die hard, particularly when they involve the supernatural, and even more so in a place like Papua New Guinea, where many inhabitants are unacquainted with scientific explanations for illness and natural disaster.

During the “witch craze” of Europe, which lasted about three centuries, it is estimated that at least 50,000 people (and possibly many times more) were executed.


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News category: Asia Pacific.

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