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Zimbabwe: Police Arrest Cult Leader, Rescue 251 ‘Child Labourers’

Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) national spokesperson, Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi confirmed the arrest of the sect leader, Ishmael Chokurongerwa (56), together with his aide-de-camps.

A self-styled prophet and leader of the Johanne Masowe Gore Jena Penyeranyika sect has been arrested for detaining and abusing minors while conducting unlawful burials at his shrine at Nyabira, Mashonaland West province.

Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) national spokesperson, Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi confirmed the arrest of the sect leader, Ishmael Chokurongerwa (56), together with his aide-de-camps.

The other suspects are, Shingirai Ngawafune (42), James Gwenzi (55), Zebediah Sigudu, Devlodge Katsande (45), Aaron Chokurongerwa (47), Wonder Kabaya (41) and Siribinio Chikurunhe (53).

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Police raided the shrine situated at Lily Farm in a dramatic swoop early Tuesday.

Nyathi said during the raid, police found that 246 of the 251 children below the age of 18 staying at the farm had no birth certificates and were being subjected to child labour.

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

He added that police also found 16 graves at the farm — nine for adults and seven for infants and “all burials were conducted without prior registration with the Registrar-General’s Office in terms of Birth and Death Registration Act [Chapter 5:02], or without obtaining burial orders in terms of the Burial and Cremation Act (Chapter 5:03).”

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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 the 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 account on X.

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 learned 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.

However, 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.

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