Guest post by Leo Igwe
The recent approval by Pope Francis of the practice of exorcism has dealt a heavy blow to efforts to combat witch hunting in Africa.
At a time when the UN and the international community are exploring ways of tackling horrific abuses related to belief in witchcraft, the papal recognition of the association of exorcists comprising 250 priests in 30 countries is a huge setback. It dims the prospects of making witch-hunting history in Africa. In fact, the Vatican’s approval of exorcism will end up legitimizing this abusive process. Going by the current trend in witch persecution, the region is going to experience more witch hunts, not less.
This is because millions of Africans are Catholic. They look to the Vatican for guidance in the practice of their faith. This means the decision by the pope to recognise exorcism sends very disturbing signals. Many Africans will interpret this development to mean an endorsement of witch hunting because witch hunting is believed to be a form of exorcism.
Witchcraft is part of the demonological narratives in Africa. And most African Catholics claim that witchcraft is a form of evil spirit that can be expelled by priests or pastors.
The Catholic church has not really been at the forefront of the witch craze in Africa.
Though the church has always maintained the belief in the devil and the practice of exorcism, the Vatican has not come out expressly this way to endorse the process of expelling the devil. European missionaries who introduced christianity to Africa did not put much emphasis on the devil or exorcism. They focused mainly on building schools and hospitals as tools of evangelization.
But the fact is that the position of the Catholic church in Africa on witchcraft and exorcism has been ambivalent. Many churches have appropriated charismatic forms of christianity in order to halt the loss of members to Pentecostal churches. Some ‘charismatic’ Catholics priests ‘unofficially’ practice exorcism.
But the Pentecostal churches are the ones mainly in the business of preaching about the devil, deliverance and the witch hunting campaign. Pentecostal churches have appropriated the witchcraft narratives into their ministries. They preach that witches exist; that witches are demons that can possess people; and that people possessed by the demon of witchcraft can be delivered or exorcised. Pentecostal pastors are the modern day witch hunters.
But with this new development at the Vatican, things are going to change. Catholic churches in Africa will now be officially joining the witch-finding ministry. We should expect to see many churches across the region becoming witch hunting centers. Witch-hunting catholic priests, who have been practicing on the margins, will be mainstreamed. And this will surely be an unfortunate development for the cause of enlightenment in Africa and the world.