Zimbabwe police rescue 251 children used as labor and find graves in religious sect compound raid

Ishmael Chokurongerwa, 56, a "self styled" prophet is seen at his shrine on a farm about 34 kilometers (21 miles) north of the capital, Harare, Wednesday, March, 13, 2024. Chokurongerwa led a sect with more than 100 members. Zimbabwean police on Wednesday said they arrested the man claiming to be a prophet of an apostolic sect at a shrine where believers stay in a compound and authorities found 16 unregistered graves, including those of infants, and more than 250 children used as cheap labor. (AP Photo)

Ishmael Chokurongerwa, 56, a “self styled” prophet is seen at his shrine on a farm about 34 kilometers (21 miles) north of the capital, Harare, Wednesday, March, 13, 2024. Chokurongerwa led a sect with more than 100 members. Zimbabwean police on Wednesday said they arrested the man claiming to be a prophet of an apostolic sect at a shrine where believers stay in a compound and authorities found 16 unregistered graves, including those of infants, and more than 250 children used as cheap labor. (AP Photo)

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabwe police on Wednesday said they have arrested a man claiming to be a prophet of an apostolic sect at a shrine where believers stay in a compound and authorities found 16 unregistered graves, including those of infants, and more than 250 children used as cheap labor.

In a statement, police spokesman Paul Nyathi said Ishmael Chokurongerwa, 56, a “self-styled” prophet, led a sect with more than 1,000 members at a farm about 34 kilometers (21 miles) north-west of the capital, Harare, where the children were staying alongside other believers.

The children “were being used to perform various physical activities for the benefit of the sect’s leadership,” he said. Of the 251 children, 246 had no birth certificates.

“Police established that all children of school-going age did not attend formal education and were subjected to abuse as cheap labor, doing manual work in the name of being taught life skills,” said Nyathi.

Police said among the graves they found were those of seven infants whose burials were not registered with authorities.

He said police officers raided the shrine on Tuesday. Chokurongerwa, who called himself the Prophet Ishmael, was arrested together with seven of his aides “for criminal activities which include abuse of minors.”

Nyathi said more details will be released “in due course as investigations unfold.”

A state-run tabloid, H-Metro, which accompanied police during the raid, showed police in riot gear arguing with female believers in white garments and head cloths who demanded the return of children who were put into a waiting police bus. It is not clear where police took the children, and some women who accompanied them.

“Why are they taking our children? We are comfortable here. We don’t have a problem here,” shouted one of the women in a video posted on the newspaper’s X, formerly Twitter, account.

According to the newspaper, police officers armed with guns, tear smoke and trained dogs “staged a spectacular raid” on the shrine. Believers described the compound as “their promised land.”

One of Chokurongerwa’s aides gave an interview to the newspaper.

“Our belief is not from scriptures, we got it directly from God who gave us rules on how we can enter heaven. God forbids formal education because the lessons learnt at such schools go against his dictates,” he said, adding that “God told us that it won’t rain if we send our children to school. Look at the drought out there, yet we are receiving rains here. We have the gift of a spiritual ear to hear God’s voice,” he said.

Apostolic groups that infuse traditional beliefs into a Pentecostal doctrine are popular in the deeply religious southern African country.

There has been little detailed research on Apostolic churches in Zimbabwe, but UNICEF studies estimate it is the largest religious denomination with around 2.5 million followers in a country of 15 million. Some of the groups adhere to a doctrine demanding that followers avoid formal education for their children as well as medicines and medical care for members who must instead seek healing through their faith in prayer, holy water and anointed stones.

Others have in recent years begun allowing their members to visit hospitals and enroll children in school following intense campaigns by the government and non-governmental organizations.

In April last year, police in Kenya arrested a pastor who allegedly ordered congregants to starve to death in order to meet Jesus.

The country’s top prosecutor in January ordered that the pastor, Paul Mackenzie, and over 90 people from the doomsday cult be charged with murder, cruelty, child torture and other crimes in the deaths of 429 people believed to be members of the church.

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