VATICAN CITY — Two bishops from Nigeria asked the Synod of Bishops for Africa to make a clear commitment to educating Catholics about the fact that, while the devil exists, witchcraft does not.
“Suspected witches are abandoned, isolated, discriminated (against) and ostracized from the community,” Bishop Augustine Akubeze of Uromi told the synod Oct. 12.
“Sometimes they are taken to the forest and slaughtered or disgraced publicly and murdered,” he said.
Obviously, Bishop Akubeze said, witches do not exist and so the accusations are always false. Even worse, he said, people have been known to accuse someone of being a witch just to settle personal squabbles.
“Witches are said to possess superhuman powers that they use to perpetrate evil,” even against members of their own families, which makes them particularly hated and feared, he said.
Belief in witches and their curses predated the arrival of Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa and continues to this day despite evangelization and much higher levels of general education, the bishop said.
While Christianity proclaims that Jesus has conquered evil, some Pentecostal churches have not helped rid the continent of its superstitions and there even have been cases of Pentecostal Christians who “chained and tortured suspected witches in order to extract a confession,” he said.
Bishop Akubeze said that, while witchcraft “lacks any justification in reason, science and common sense,” people continue to believe in it, and he called on the synod to make clear the church’s teaching that God is all-powerful and that he sent his Son to save all people from evil.
Bishop Joseph Ekuwem of Uyo, Nigeria, said that across the continent people believe that “witchcraft is an evil force capable of inflicting both spiritual and physical harm on a person.”
While Christians believe the devil does exist, the superstitions about witchcraft are so pronounced that people see witches as having more power than God, he said.
The bishop called for “an authentic catechesis, deeply biblical and theological,” to be offered in seminaries and for simpler versions of the church’s teaching about evil and Jesus’ victory over it to be developed for the faithful.
He also asked for the development of a new rite of exorcism and the appointment of an exorcist in each diocese to deal with suspected cases of possession.
In 1999 the Vatican published a new Rite of Exorcisms, updating the book of prayers seeking God’s protection from Satan’s influence and calling on God’s power to drive Satan away. According to the 1999 rules, a priest appointed exorcist by his bishop must have a “moral certainty” that a person is not suffering a psychological illness before performing a “major exorcism” — the rite to cast a demon out of a possessed or obsessed person. The required caution reflects the church’s recognition that many symptoms associated with possession a couple of hundred years ago can now be explained by medical science.
Bishop Ekuwem told the synod, “We owe our people — according to our teaching office — to teach them and save them from the claws of false belief and terrible occult practices like witchcraft.”