Catholic faith is the answer to sorcery-related violence in Papua New Guinea, says bishop

Sr Lorena Jenal walks with local people from the Diocese of Mendi in Papua New Guinea Courtesy Diocese of Mendi Sr. Lorena Jenal walks with local people from the Diocese of Mendi in Papua New Guinea. Courtesy Diocese of Mendi.

On Easter Sunday in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, three innocent women were burned and tortured while local Catholics were at Mass for the Resurrection of the Lord.

"One cannot ignore the diabolical irony of this," wrote Sr. Lorena Jenal, a Catholic missionary in Papua New Guinea (PNG) for over three decades.

The women, Magdalena, Rika, and Cindrela, were victims of what is known as sorcery accusation-related violence, or SAV.

They had been accused during Holy Week of causing, through witchcraft, the death of an elderly man with asthma and kidney failure. 

Bishop Donald Lippert, OFM, Cap., of the Diocese of Mendi in the Southern Highlands province, told CNA that this kind of violence was "an ongoing problem" and "not uncommon."

Belief in sorcery is still widespread in some areas of Papua New Guinea, and acts of violence, or even murder, will sometimes be carried out against people, most often women, who are accused of having put a curse on someone in the community.

Research carried out by the Australian High Commission from January 2016 to October 2017 found that a third of 150 recorded cases of sorcery accusation in PNG resulted in violence. Of these, nearly three quarters involved torture. A third of people suffered permanent injury and one in 10 people were killed.

"What people will tell me is that the belief in sorcery -- they call it 'Sanguma' -- is something that has been rather pervasive forever, but this kind of violence that they're doing against women and sometimes men is not really part of popular Guinean culture," the bishop said.

"For me it's like a sign of chaos in the culture. It's the bastardization of their culture," he added. "And I think it's coming up because their traditional culture is fading away or in chaos with modern culture coming in."

The answer, Lippert said, is to preach the Gospel.

The response is "not going to come from the government, or politics. Even the police turn their backs," the bishop noted. "These people do this with impunity."

"The Catholic Church, and our Catholic faith, is the answer to this darkness," he stated. "And bringing people into relationship with Jesus and teaching the dignity of the human person are the best ways of changing people's attitudes and changing their behavior as well."

The person leading the Mendi diocese's response to sorcery accusation violence is Sr. Lorena Jenal, Lippert said.

Jenal is a Franciscan Sister of Divine Providence who has been recognized for her work against sorcery accusation violence and for helping victims. 

In an unpublished essay provided to CNA through Bishop Lippert, Jenal said that the three women tortured on Easter Sunday are mothers and "respected women with dignity" in Pomberel.

"The three women are recovering from their physical torture, but the trauma of all the rest that happened is far from being healed, it possibly takes a lifetime," Jenal said.

She noted that there are currently 76 survivors and 12 victims of murder due to sorcery accusation violence in the Southern Highlands province. And these are just the cases they know about.

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The Catholic parish in Pomberel is doing what it can to help victims and to speak out against SAV. Jenal said the church organizes a team of lay men and women, together with other Christian denominations, "to confront this evil that is harming our community."

The group is also in the process of constructing a "House of Hope," a safe place for SAV victims and victims of other kinds of violence to go after receiving medical treatment.

The religious sister also recounted an act of healing which took place in the community at the end of May.

After the liturgy on Pentecost Sunday, the Catholic community "who wished to practice what we had just celebrated, marched with singing and prayers to the place of torture to offer the peace and forgiveness that the Risen Lord breathed into His disciples -- and to call for an end to sorcery accusation violence and violence of every kind!" she recounted.

"We had only one rule: no knives, no sticks, no weapons, no stones, only a heart filled with the fire of the Spirit, with the flame of love," she continued. "Along the way, others joined the procession -- even the street boys and those playing cards at the side of the road."

"Many in that place were deeply moved and, most importantly, their leaders made a commitment that they would never participate in this kind of violence again," Jenal said.

Lippert has also been doing a series of posts on his social media accounts to start a discussion about the issue among local people. 

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"The more we are able to get people to encounter the power of the Risen Jesus, of the Risen Christ, the more they will be able to realize that [sorcery accusation-related violence] has no place," he said.

People do not need to fear curses and sorcery, he said, because "they are protected by Jesus who has already won the battle against Satan and against sin and against all evil."

"I think from that perspective, we have to continue to help people know the person of Jesus."

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