"I was thrown into a cupboard and told to pray on my knees until the devil left," says Aisha. "I remember it was completely dark, very cold, and very cramped. I didn't know what was going on, but I remember the door was locked. I kept banging on it to be let out, but no one listened. All I could hear was mum, telling me to keep praying."
Aisha was nine years old when she underwent a forced exorcism. Taken to a flat in South London by her mother and uncle, she believed she was just on her way to another of her community's Bible meetings. Upon entering the flat, however, she was snatched from her mum by her then-pastor--a man she called "Papa"--who told her she had a spirit inside her that needed to be removed before it could spread "evil things."
She was told to sit as fellow members of the congregation--"around 20 or so people"--formed a circle, chanting Bible verses while Papa threw water at her. Afterwards, Aisha was locked in the cupboard "for most of the night" while Papa led the congregation's continued chanting. When she was finally let out the following morning, Papa told her that her tears were a "sign from God" that the evil spirits had left her.
Now 20, Aisha--who's currently a student and a secret atheist--tells me how these types of rituals are not uncommon in her community. She was raised by her single mother in the City, surrounded by her community of Nigerian Pentecostal Christians. Because she was conceived out of wedlock, both Aisha and her mother were "looked at with suspicion" by neighbors, who "believed we were impure, and that my mum was cursed." Aisha's mum found solace in their Pentecostal church, which at the time operated from a rented community hall.
"Church is still the most important thing in my family's lives," she says. "Most Christians in this country only go to church on Sundays, or during big religious festivals. But my family, like most in Nigeria, still go about four or five days a week. Mostly for cultural reasons and to keep ties with the community, but they also really believe everything our pastors say, every word of it."
According to Aisha, it was the unconditional acceptance of the pastors, who were often boisterous and charismatic, that led her, and "potentially hundreds" of children like her, to undergo traumatizing rituals in the name of exorcism, or "deliverance."
"My deliverance was much more gentle than others," she says, telling me of cases in which other children had been forced to fast, were hit by their pastors or, in some cases, had been forced to sacrifice animals. "Deliverance is more toned down in the UK, probably because of the police," she says.
"The more extreme deliverance takes place back in Africa. I've heard many stories of children as young as five being taken to Nigeria or Ghana on 'holiday' and sent to camps where they're given deliverance. Some have been cut with razors, been forced to jump over fires, and even been physically beaten by fully-grown men. Things you would be sent to prison for in the UK are ignored in Africa, and anyone who speaks out against it is immediately branded as a witch, or [said to be] cursed by the 'white devil' in the West."
While Aisha's "exorcism" may have been psychologically damaging, other British children have been subject to more brutal practices.
Victoria Climbié with her great-aunt (Handout)
In 2000, eight-year-old Victoria Climbié was found dead as a result of attacks inflicted by her great-aunt Marie-Thérèse Kouao and her boyfriend Carl Manning. With 128 injuries on her body at the time of death, a Home Office pathologist called it "the worst case of child abuse" they had ever seen. Kouao believed Victoria was possessed--a claim reaffirmed by her then pastor Pascal Orome.
A more recent example was the 2010 case of Kristy Bamu, a 15-year-old who was violently beaten by his sister Magalie and her boyfriend Erik Bikubi in their east London flat. Bamu was reportedly hit with a weightlifting bar and had parts of his flesh torn off with pliers before he was drowned in a bathtub. The torture began as a result of Bikubi's belief that Kristy had cast spells on another child in the family.
Despite these cases being covered heavily in the national press, relatively little has been done by the government to curb the problem. While they introduced the "Every Child Matters" (ECM) policy following Climbié's death--a strategy that aimed to safeguard children from abuse by linking schools, social services and the police--social workers, who wished to remain anonymous, told me that government cuts, particularly in training individuals to identify victims of abuse, had "reduced ECM to nothing."§
The last official study of child abuse linked to beliefs in witchcraft and possession was carried out in 2006, identifying 74 cases since 2000. The report indicated that around three-quarters of these cases were recorded from within African Christian communities, with the remaining quarter dominated by those from South Asian backgrounds. Around half of the children documented in the report were UK citizens.
The report concluded that the concept of witchcraft and possession was "widespread" in certain communities, and that social workers or authorities were "unable to change them." It added that superstitious beliefs stemmed not just from cultural history, but also the exploitation of anxieties such as debt, unemployment and bad fortune by preachers, many of whom had no official records or documents signifying their religious authority.
While the Home Office couldn't provide me with current records of child abuse relating to witchcraft, both practicing Christians and independent researchers have told me that it is highly likely that cases of "deliverance" still occur regularly. The Metropolitan Police backed this up, saying there has been a rise in belief-linked child abuse being reported, with nearly 150 cases filed since 2004. Most recently, they say, a suspected "string of child exorcisms" was reported to have taken place near a leisure centre in Croydon.
"It's commonly accepted that the prevalence of abuse linked to witchcraft and possession is difficult to measure, as many cases go unreported," says Feriha Tayfur, an independent human rights researcher. Feriha adds that it was usually only the "most extreme cases" that were reported to the authorities, meaning that vulnerable children--especially those with mental and physical disabilities--were more likely to be subjected to deliverance practices without the authorities finding out.
The government insists it has guidelines to deal with all forms of child abuse, but legislation hasn't covered religious rituals since the repeal of the Witchcraft Act in 1951. According to Feriha, while the Human Rights Act provides some protection from religious acts being imposed on an individual, often this isn't enough to protect the most vulnerable.
Other experts, including Dr. Richard Hoskins, a researcher in ritual crimes, suggest that children being subjected to exorcisms are actually being failed by those charged with protecting them, namely the police and social services.
Hoskins has advised the Met Police and been an expert witness in over 100 religious abuse cases. He says it's the inadequacy of existing government policy--alongside the "tiptoeing around racial issues" by the police--that's left a large number of children in the UK open to abuse.
And while exorcisms might difficult to monitor, he says, a lack of resources and training has meant that children known to be in danger have been failed. He cited the case of a child being allowed to fly to Ghana to be exorcised, despite police informing the UK border authorities beforehand. Other cases I heard of, mostly from social workers who didn't want to be named, included teachers who refused to report children showing signs of abuse, as well as religious community leaders who believed they "shouldn't be involved in the affairs of other families".
However, religious abuse cases clearly cannot simply be blamed on institutional failure. Pastors who conduct the exorcisms, many of whom are wealthy, well traveled and highly educated, know not to "cross the boundaries," Hoskins tells me. While violent practices are increasingly conducted away from the public eye, exorcisms that involve "emotional torture," including chanting, shouting and verbal accusations of possession, still remain rife.
"It's an incitement to child abuse, which is still not prosecutable," says Hoskins. "These pastors can subject victims to fasting, sleep deprivation, and other forms of child abuse. It's feral."
This sentiment is shared by Nigerian human rights activist Leo Igwe. Like other anti-belief-based-abuse activists, his work has led to a number of attacks by notorious Evangelical groups. Leo tells me that accusations of witchcraft "take different shapes", but most are rooted in a toxic mixture of radical Christianity and a type of "African traditionalism with strong layers of belief in exorcism".
"Women are the most at risk of accusation," he adds, suggesting that deep-rooted suspicions of seduction and temptation are exploited by religious preachers to justify their actions.
When I ask Leo about cases of exorcism in the UK, he tells me that they "continue to happen, but are very well concealed," making it difficult for victims to speak out. And while more people are campaigning against the practice, Leo says there is still a "taboo of being a disbeliever" among African-rooted communities, leading to a passive acceptance of such practices.
"They give power to these pastors", says Leo, adding that preachers can make thousands of pounds by "mining this sense of indebtedness" to their congregations, especially by creating a cult-like following. "Exorcism is a ritual that puts people under pressure to give money, whether they have it or not," he says. Dr. Hoskins agrees, telling me that Pastors can gain notoriety in "broken-down diaspora communities" where they can replace traditional tribal elders through their "thoroughly manipulative preaching."§
Other sources I spoke to--including Adam, a youth worker who underwent an exorcism when he was 13--told me of families who had "literally gone bankrupt" paying their pastor to carry out deliverance. "No one used to say nothing to pastor in case they were disrespectful," he tells me. "They just blamed it on the families. My mum said it was punishment from God that they were poor. 'Auntie' had been drinking or doing drugs when she was younger and now she was getting punishment from God."
"It's all the suspicion in our cultures that lets the pastors do what they like," he says. "They know they are untouchable and that they'll always have more power over the police, or schools, or whoever else tries to challenge them."
Exactly how prevalent exorcisms are in the UK remains a mystery, but what's clear is that they won't be wiped out any time soon.
Some names have been changed to protect identities.
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