Looking at the often depressing state of older churches, one might think that white Europeans would be overjoyed to see new signs of Christian growth, specially when this is associated with young and active populations. To a remarkable extent, though, recent controversies suggest real suspicion of the immigrant churches, which media and policy makers regard almost as an alien cult.
In European history, the words "New Christian" carry grim implications, referring as it does to those Jews who were forced to convert in early modern Spain but whose religious practices remained under deep suspicion. New Christians were the primary targets of the Spanish Inquisition, and their activities were its chief justification. Today, of course, no official compulsion requires anyone to confess the Christian faith, yet once again we find quite deep tensions between the old and better-established churches, and those newer believers whose faith they view very coolly. African and African-derived churches especially are often portrayed as extremist, superstitious, and subject to the manipulative whims of greedy or cynical preachers. The portrait of global South churches has many parallels to the familiar American stereotypes of destructive cults.
Media reaction to the rising Christianity demonstrates curious parallels to the treatment of Islam. In terms of mainstream responses to the practice of the religion itself, European media and officialdom have demonstrated rather greater tolerance toward Islam than to immigrant Christianity, which is viewed as a peculiarly sinister faith not worthy of legal protections. Of course, Islam receives the vast bulk of news coverage because of society's fears of terrorism or subversion, which nobody has yet applied to southern world Christianity. Yet having said that, both Christians and Muslims receive a chilly reception from a secular media and officialdom.
In Britain, African and Latin American churches hit the headlines only during exposés of exorcism and spiritual warfare episodes in which children have been harmed, sometimes after they were accused of being witches or possessed by demons. The media largely ignored the new churches until the national scandal surrounding a young African girl called Anna Victoria Climbie, who died from extreme physical abuse in 1999. Her family suspected she was bewitched and took her to a wide range of churches offering healing and exorcism services, including the Brazilian-based Igreja Universal.
Recently, African churches have been subjected to astonishing vilification. Following one quite well documented instance of African human sacrifice in London—an act derived from pre-Christian and nonChristian animist traditions—the media began linking such activity to Pentecostal churches. The affair began in 2001, with the discovery in the Thames of the mutilated body of a five-year-old boy nicknamed Adam. Allegedly, the child was the victim of a ritualistic killing linked to a West African form of voodoolike religion. Officers suspect that gangs illegally importing exotic meat, such as chimpanzee and bush rat from West Africa, are involved in trading in substances used in African witchcraft that may include human body parts.
As the classic Heart of Darkness script unfolded, media and police attention inexorably focused on misdeeds attributed to black charismatic churches and AlCs, some of which had been engaged in harrowing exorcisms of alleged witches and demoniacs, commonly children. One scandal, which genuinely did involve the brutal death of a child, was linked to the practices of Combat Spirituel, a classic Congolese AIC.21
Since 2005, media reports have segued from suggesting that exorcisms were undertaken to fight diabolism, to presenting the rituals themselves as a form of primitive black jungle savagery dressed in Christian guise. Rituals designed to combat witchcraft were thus presented as a singularly dangerous manifestation of witchcraft. The Guardian characteristically headlined "Children Abused in Exorcism Rites," and "Police Investigate Religious Links after Witchcraft Abuse of Child"; the Observer announced "Churches Blamed for Exorcism Growth." The Sunday Times announced, " 'Witch Child' Abuse Spreads in Britain: Fifty Cases Suspected in London Alone." London's sensationalistic Evening Standard reported that boys from Africa are being murdered as human sacrifices in London churches. They are brought into the capital to be offered up in rituals by fundamentalist Christian sects, according to a shocking report by Scotland Yard. . . . Last month Scotland Yard revealed it had traced just two out of 300 black boys aged four to seven reported missing from London schools in a three-month period. The true figure for missing boys and girls is feared to be several thousand a year.22
In 2006, the BBC television documentary Witch Child claimed to investigate the "increase of a disturbing recent crime, in which young African children in the UK are being abused, and even murdered, by parents and relatives in the belief that they are possessed by evil spirits." In the program, academic Richard Hoskins told how he had sought the roots of these primitive Christian beliefs: "I traveled to Africa in search of a young London child who had been sent back to the Congo and came face-to-face with the horrifying realities of exorcism in the 21st century." In his view, exorcism churches practiced "a new Frankenstein religion, an unholy marriage of perverted Christianity and an ingrained African belief in the spirit world."23
While everyone admits that members of different faith traditions commit crimes or atrocities, it is much more dubious to assert that such acts form part of the religions themselves or that they are required rituals. To take an American example, not even the most forthright critics of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests claimed that such behavior was demanded or justified as part of secret rituals followed by the Catholic Church. Yet that is the kind of leap made in the context of the African churches, where crimes by sadistic or disturbed individuals are used to condemn mainstream beliefs. Putting all this in perspective, belief in exorcism, spiritual healing, possession, and the defeat of witchcraft are indeed integral to most African (and many Asian) churches, and all these practices are well established in regular denominations, including Anglican, Catholic, and "mainline" evangelical churches. The regular conduct of immigrant churches—involving exorcism and healing, not necessarily with any abusive or violent element—was thus seen as deeply problematic, and criminalized.
Now, police and social services were unquestionably dealing with a few instances of truly abusive and violent behavior, and their concern is laudable. If they were investigating the torture of children carried out under the guise of religion, no one could fail to support their efforts, but they went too far in framing their response. The Guardian told how
Richard Hoskins, an expert in African religions and cultural and religious crime, said he knew of several cases of attempted exorcisms in the UK. He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that "faith healers" from African churches were entering the country. "There are clearly exorcisms taking place in this country," said Dr Hoskins. "I am helping the Metropolitan Police and also social services with six or possibly seven cases UK-wide, and people say there are more."24
At least as it is stated here, the characterization of exorcism is odd. To place these comments in the context of African or Asian Christianity, we would have to imagine a story in which an expert in religious deviance warned that "there are clearly Eucharistic services taking place in this country" and that the scholar was assisting police in detecting and suppressing them. Of course exorcisms are occurring in churches of African origin, and there are faith healers. How could there not be? And as we have seen, deliverance and exorcism are a major part of the spiritual arsenal of white charismatics. (Technically, too, every Catholic baptism includes a form of exorcism.)25 Hoskins's earlier research on Congolese traditions like Kimbanguism had certainly made him aware of the critical role of spiritual warfare ideas, which need not be associated with violence or child abuse. Hoskins can scarcely be blamed for how his remarks were quoted, and possibly misunderstood, by the media; but as the newspapers reported the affair, they presented a dismal view of African Christianity.26
In retrospect, the ritualistic abuse affair was mainly a media-driven moral panic, a reprise of the Satanic ritual abuse furor from a decade earlier. Even the Guardian, which was itself deeply implicated in scare-mongering, drew breath long enough to investigate "How Media Whipped Up a Racist Witch-Hunt." But the official response to the new cases was to adopt far stricter rules for African clergy and ministers entering the UK, a draconian sanction introduced several months before any like restrictions were imposed on Muslim activists or imams preaching hatred and violence. The affair indicates staggering official and media ignorance of charismatic Christianity, of the distinctive religious practices of African and global South believers, and a tendency to dismiss enthusiastic Christian belief as, in effect, a black thing. The controversy has disturbing implications for Europe's growing religious diversity. If the media are so grimly ignorant of and prejudiced against non-Western Christianity, what hope do they have of understanding the more alien faith of Islam?27
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