Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Nigerian 'witch hunt' pastor suspends controversial US trips

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Publicity material for Helen Ukpabio's now-abandoned US trip
Earlier this year, we reported on a planned visit to the United States by Helen Ukpabio, a Nigerian evangelical pastor responsible for a series of threatening and dangerous campaigns in her home country against those accused of being being witches.

Ukpabio, who featured in our 2011 report on the fight against such witch hunts in Nigeria and Malawi, was planning two trips to the US – to Houston and New York – where she was planning to preach a "Marathon Deliverance" that was billed as offering her congregations the chance to "receive ... freedom from the Lord" from a number of complaints, including "witchcraft attack or oppression", possession "by mermaid spirit or other evil spirits" and "chronic and incurable diseases".

Once Ukpabio's travel plans emerged, campaigners against her activities in Africa began appealing to the US authorities to prevent her from preaching in that country. Prominent Nigerian humanist Leo Igwe, who has had many confrontations with Ukpabio and her Liberty Gospel Church, wrote that "efforts must be made to stop this evangelical throwback from spreading her diseased gospel in the US", while online campaigners called for her exclusion from the US, and set about raising money for the UK-based charity Stepping Stones Nigeria, which campaigns to protect children threatened by witch hunts in the Niger Delta region of Africa.

Now, four months after details of Ukpabio's US trip first emerged, it seems the campaign against it has paid off, with Nigerian media reporting that she will no longer be visiting the country. In a report sympathetic towards Ukpabio, the Nigerian Voice website quotes the preacher's attorney Victor Ukutt, who confirms that the trip has been cancelled, and makes a series of bizarre allegations against her opponents, including Stepping Stones, suggesting that the campaigns against her are a front for obtaining money through fraudulent means. This is a common tactic for Ukpabio, who has long dismissed the “child witch scam” as an atheist conspiracy.

While the threat to children through accusations of witchcraft may seem distant from a UK perspective, it's important to remember that such beliefs have led to cases of serious abuse in this country too. Indeed, the issue was at the top of the news agenda recently with the horrific case of 15-year-old Kristy Bamu, who was brutally murdered by close family members who were convinced that he was a witch.

In the latest issue of New Humanist, Sarah Ditum looks at how widespread cases of abuse linked to belief in witchcraft are in Britain, and asks what can be done to protect the children who are most at risk. It's a powerful and disturbing piece – please do take the time to read it.
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