A man who was subjected to two years of exorcisms after being accused of witchcraft believes victims are going undetected in the UK during the coronavirus pandemic.
Mardoche Yembi told Sky News his relatives believed he was possessed by an “evil spirit” as a child and blamed him for his mother’s death after moving to London from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
He fears youngsters have been at greater risk of the abuse during the UK’s lockdowns after campaigners said children with COVID have been branded witches in some communities.
Police have warned cases of child abuse linked to faith or belief are “highly under-reported” – and there are fears school closures during the pandemic have worsened the problem.
Just six cases were recorded by the Metropolitan Police in the first half of 2021, compared to 37 cases throughout the whole of 2018.
Detective Sergeant Kate Bridger told Sky News that abuse by believers in witchcraft and spirit possession “can take all different forms” including physical, sexual and emotional.
“People who are ‘possessed’ could be cut, beaten, or have chilli powder put on any orifice to burn the spirit coming out,” she said.
“Ultimately, a person could be murdered because that person is the vessel for that evil spirit that creates such a risk for the believer.”
• Children killed in UK over witchcraft and possession claims
Fifteen-year-old Kristy Bamu was tortured and murdered by his older sister Magalie and her partner after they accused the teenager of using witchcraft in east London in 2010.
Eight-year-old Victoria Climbie was tortured to death in north London in 2000 by her great aunt and her partner after a Christian preacher convinced them she was possessed.
On Monday, a hospital anaesthetist is due to be sentenced after injecting his partner with drugs during a series of exorcism ceremonies, leaving her close to death with multiple organ failure.
Hossam Metwally made dozens of video recordings of himself administering fluids through a cannula to Kelly Wilson while chanting as part of a “dangerous perversion” of the Islamic Ruqya ritual, Sheffield Crown Court heard.
The 60-year-old, who is originally from Egypt, told the jury he performed rituals on Ms Wilson to exorcise evil spirits, called Jinns, but claimed he only used holy oil and did not inject anaesthetics.
However a jury found the father-of-four guilty of endangering Ms Wilson’s life through the unlawful and deliberate intravenous administration of anaesthetics or sedative agents and drug possession offences.
• ‘The pastor came into the house… trying to get the demon off me’
Mr Yembi said he was first branded a witch by relatives at the age of 11 and he faced a two-year ordeal that left him “scared” and “depressed”.
“They took me to church to try to get the ‘demon spirit’ away from me – that’s what they called it,” he told Sky News.
“I started running away from home a lot because there was a lot of shouting and a lot of blaming on me.
“The pastor came into the house a lot, preaching and trying to get the demon off me.”
Mr Yembi said he was threatened with a knife in one incident and, on another occasion, his treasured football trophy was burnt.
“I don’t want any child to go through it,” he said. “It’s just bad. I was depressed. I was in a bad place.
“I just felt lonely.
“I started getting scared.
“I couldn’t do anything in the house. I had to go in my room and lock myself in there.”
• Fears children accused of witchcraft being missed
Before he moved to the UK, Mr Yembi said he had seen children accused of witchcraft in Congo go through horrific rituals in which they were beaten and had chilli pepper rubbed in their eyes.
After his school learnt of a plan to take him back to the African country, Mr Yembi said social services became involved and he was admitted to a mental health hospital after his ordeal left him feeling suicidal, before he was placed in foster care.
The 29-year-old said he was never physically harmed and he has forgiven the relatives involved – who were not prosecuted – but he no longer speaks to them.
“I believe they still believe in it,” he added.
Mr Yembi, who is now a painter and decorator in London, as well as a motivational speaker, said he believes children are still being accused of witchcraft in the UK today.
“With the lockdowns, any kid who is going through it, it doesn’t help to be honest,” he added.
• Children with COVID symptoms accused of being ‘possessed’
International human rights activist Mandy Sanghera said she is aware of cases where people have sought rituals to cure “evil spirits” in children during the pandemic, after they have been blamed for adults losing jobs or being put on furlough.
She said some of those who carry out rituals claim that COVID is not real and tell the parents of children with symptoms of the virus that they are “possessed”.
“People’s religion overrides their common sense sometimes,” she told Sky News.
“We need professionals to be very clear about protection and not political correctness.
“Sometimes people – frontline social workers, police officers – won’t address certain things because they’ll say ‘it’s cultural’ or ‘we don’t want to get involved’. But sometimes it’s too late.”
Ms Sanghera said some people have been charged “hundreds of pounds and even thousands” for exorcisms and rituals to be carried out.
Some parents of children with epilepsy have been told “that was the evil spirit coming out”, she added.
“It’s really shocking some of the things people will believe, in the name of religion and culture,” she said.
• Which cultures and religions believe in witchcraft and spirit possession?
According to the Met Police, child abuse linked to faith or belief is not confined to one faith, nationality or ethnic community.
Examples have been recorded across several religions including Christians, Muslims and Hindus, the force said.
In England, around 1,950 suspected victims of child abuse based on faith or belief were identified by councils in 2018/19 – a 34% increase on the previous year, according to the Local Government Association.
Met Police inspector Allen Davis, who works to tackle abuse linked to faith and belief, told Sky News that the risk had increased during the pandemic.
“We can’t afford for this to be a taboo subject,” he said. “This is about protecting the vulnerable.
“It’s out there. We’re doing something about it.
“If we don’t respond and we don’t intervene early, what can be the worst scenario? That’s when we end up with the tragic child murders that we’re trying to prevent.”
Leethen Bartholomew, head of the National FGM Centre, said the pandemic had resulted in children having less contact with professionals – such as teachers and youth workers – who “spot the signs” of abuse linked to claims of witchcraft and spirit possession.
The organisation has previously warned that if vulnerable children or adults contract COVID, they could be labelled as being witches or possessed by families with those beliefs.
“The pandemic has put extra pressures on families, particularly those living in difficult circumstances, which can fuel harmful acts of abuse or neglect on children,” Mr Bartholomew said.
“So it is important that we support children and young people, create safe spaces to talk about their fears and anxieties and respond appropriately.”