At a time when the UN and the international community are exploring ways of tackling horrific abuses related to belief in witchcraft, the papal recognition of the Association of Exorcists (comprising 250 priests in 30 countries) is a huge setback. It dims the prospects of making witch-hunting history in Africa. In fact, Vatican’s approval of exorcism will end up legitimizing this abusive process. Going by the current trend in witch persecution, the region is going to experience more witch-hunts not fewer.

This is because millions of Africans are Catholic, 177 million of the global total of 1.2 billion, according to the World Christian Database. They look to the Vatican for guidance in the practice of their faith. So the decision by the pope to recognise exorcism sends very disturbing signals. Many will interpret this development to mean an endorsement of witch-hunting because witch-hunting is believed to be a form of exorcism.

Witchcraft is part of the demonological narratives in Africa. And many African Catholics believe witchcraft is a form of evil spirit that can be expelled by priests or pastors.

A Roman Catholic faithful prays as he attends a mass after the announcement of the election of the new pope, at the Holy Family Minor Basilica in Kenya's capital Nairobi. Photo: Thomas Mukoya/Reuters
A Roman Catholic faithful prays as he attends a mass after the announcement of the election of the new pope, at the Holy Family Minor Basilica in Kenya’s capital Nairobi. Photo: Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

The Catholic Church has not really been at the forefront of the witch craze in Africa. Though the church has always maintained the belief in the devil and the practice of exorcism, the Vatican had not come out expressly this way to endorse the process of expelling the devil. European missionaries who introduced Christianity to Africa did not place so much emphasis on the devil or exorcism. They focused mainly on building schools and hospitals as tools of evangelisation.

But the position of the Catholic church in Africa on witchcraft and exorcism has been ambivalent. Many churches have appropriated charismatic forms of Christianity in order to halt the loss of members to Pentecostal churches. Some ‘charismatic’ Catholics priests ‘unofficially’ practice exorcism, but it is the Pentecostal churches that are mainly into the business of preaching about the devil, deliverance and witch-hunting campaigns. Pentecostal churches have appropriated the witchcraft narratives into their ministries, telling their congregations that witches exist, that they are demons capable of possessing people, and that people possessed by the demon of witchcraft can be delivered or exorcised. Pentecostal pastors are the modern day witch-hunters.

But with this new development at the Vatican, things are going to change. Catholic churches in Africa will now be officially joining the witch-finding ministry. We should expect to see many churches across the continent becoming witch-hunting centres. Witch-hunting catholic priests, who have been practicing on the margins, will be mainstreamed. And this will surely be an unfortunate development for the cause of enlightenment in the world.