Witch Hunting and Torture in Papua New Guinea

World Religions
Witch torture in Papua New Guinea b/c of scapegoating. Fear of sorcery leads to innocents maimed/killed. http://bit.ly/10uMjqP #uwreligions

Warning: Graphic images and disturbing content in original article

It is difficult to believe that witch hunts comparable to those that took place in medieval Europe would still occur today, but this is a reality that continues in Papua New Guinea. Belief in sorcery is common in this country, and is even enshrined in law thanks to the Sorcery Act of 1971. It is a commonly held belief that if someone is sick or someone dies early, sanguma, which means dark magic, is to blame. Natural causes are often ignored. A blood-thirsty mob concocts a mock trial – often with police helplessly watching – then tortures and possibly kills its selected victim. It does not matter if the person is innocent or not.

In fact, the selection process of such victims is so random that it is all but guaranteed that they are innocent of what they are accused of. Philip Gibbs, a man who has collected testimonies of victims of this violence says this: “When a family, believing that death comes through human agency, looks for a scapegoat to accuse, fingers will very often point at a woman without influential brothers or strong sons.” In other words, a vulnerable and defenseless person is chosen and absorbs the wrath of a grieving family.

Rene Girard speaks of violence and scapegoating being an element that has maintained human society. Violence is caused by mimetic desires, and if these desires are left unchecked, they will destroy society. When society selects a victim and takes their violent passions out on that person, the crowd is appeased and calmed. Scapegoating in Papua New Guinea is clearly in play, but what lies behind this violence? What is making the people so angry?

90% unemployment among young people who have no hope for a future is a beginning. Primal religious beliefs gone awry are also a factor. Mix in some drugs and alcohol, an impotent police force, and a culture conditioned by fear of sanguma, and you have a recipe for a major problem. So is it actually a religious problem, or is it a deeper societal issue? The lines of blame are blurry, and injustice takes many forms. Who is wise enough to discern the root cause?
There are those within Papua New Guinea who are trying to stem the tide and bring about change in subtle ways, often at great risk to themselves. There are doctors who will clearly elucidate the medical reasons for a person’s death, thus mitigating the possibility that sanguma will be blamed.

There are nuns and priests who stand up to violent mobs at great personal risk in order to rescue a victim. There are people who take these broken and battered women to safe places to recover. There are people who speak up for justice, and who wish to eliminate the Sorcery Act. This act, though it condemns the practice of sorcery and those who would seek to use vigilante justice to combat it, also legitimizes sorcery by acknowledging that it is real and active.

There are no simple solutions to this type of problem, for the causes run deep and are not easily rooted out. But as long as there are those who will speak up for the innocent and defend the cause of the oppressed, hope still endures.

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