Church in Papua New Guinea addresses sorcery practices within country
Many Papuan Christians integrate indigenous beliefs and practices into their religious rites
Observing World Communications Day, Papua New Guinea Catholics gathered with local media to discuss charges of sorcery there, which often end in violence against the accused. "Church and Media - A Joint Reflection on Sorcery" was held January. 24, the feast of St. Francis de Sales, patron saint of journalists, in Boroko, a suburb of the capital, Port Moresby.
Kepari Leniata, 20, was stripped, tortured, bound, doused in petrol and set on fire on a rubbish heap in the Western Highlands town of Mount Hagen. Police said she was accused of sorcery by relatives of a boy, 6, who died in Mount Hagen's hospital the day before.
The Melanesian nation consists of the eastern half of the island of New Guinea, as well as numerous other, smaller, islands, and is located north of Australia and east of Indonesia. Nearly all its population is Christian; and 27 percent is Catholic, yet many Papuan Christians integrate indigenous beliefs and practices into their religious life.
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Many Papuans believe in sorcery, and those accused of practicing it - a majority of who are women - are at times subject to mob attacks and murder.
The conference featured a presentation by an Italian missionary and sociologist, Fr. Franco Zocca, who discussed the Church's attitude toward magic and sorcery, as well as data collected by the Melanesian Institute, which studies indigenous cultures of the region.
Fr. Zocca coordinated a four year research study on sorcery in Papua New Guinea, and told conference attendees that "only scientific enlightenment and a massive education effort can help overcome sorcery beliefs" in the country.
The conference included talks by Church leaders who shared their knowledge of sorcery in the area, their assessment of its consequences, and strategies that could counteract frivolous accusations and unjust punishment of alleged sorcerers and witches.
At its conclusion, Bishop Rochus Tatamai of Bereina said Mass for all those attending the event, preaching on the life and writings of St. Francis de Sales.
The topic of sorcery is an important one in Papua New Guinea. According to Human Rights Watch, at least nine women were attacked after being accused of witchcraft in 2013; an improvement from the more than 50 sorcery related deaths which occurred in 2008.
Some indigenous Papuans do not believe in misfortune and accidents, and attribute them to sorcery, while the accusation can also be used for revenge or envy. Amnesty International reports that women are six times more likely to be accused of sorcery than are men.
In February 2013, 20 year old Kepari Leniata was stripped and then burned to death as a witch after a six year old child died in her city.
A 1971 Sorcery Act criminalized the practice of sorcery in Papua New Guinea, and accepted the accusation of sorcery as a defense in cases of murder; that act was repealed in May, 2013.
Yet the act's appeal was accompanied by a new law which included sorcery-related killings among crimes penalized by capital punishment, as well as aggravated rape and armed robbery.
While sorcery-related violence continues to be a problem in Papua New Guinea, the situation has improved in recent years, due in part to the Church's apostolates and evangelization, bringing a change in thought and ways of life through education and catechesis of indigenous Papuans.
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