Norton religious scandal: child exploitation and closed burials

Norton, Zimbabwe (AP) - The self-proclaimed prophet Ishmael appeared in a Zimbabwean court Thursday after a police raid on the compound where he led a religious sect. Authorities found more than 250 children who were being kept out of school and exploited as cheap labor.

During the raid, police found 16 unregistered graves, including the burials of seven infants, on a farm about 34 kilometers northwest of the capital Harare.

Ishmael Chokurongerwa and seven accomplices are accused of exploiting the children and depriving them of education and medical care. Paul Nyathi, a police spokesman, said investigations were ongoing and further charges could be brought against those involved.

The sect leaders have also been charged with violating laws relating to the registration of deaths and burials. According to state media, there were about 1 000 people living on the farm before the police operation.

At the court hearing, the magistrate told Chokurongerwe, a 56-year-old man, and his aides that their bail application would be heard next week, but in the meantime they would remain in custody. Neither man was represented at the hearing and their current whereabouts were not disclosed.

The men have applied to the magistrate for bail, saying they are non-violent and have dependent children. They fear that their children will be harmed if they are imprisoned.

Supporters of Chokurongerwa attended the court hearing in Norton to show solidarity with him.

Thabet Mupphana, a 34-year-old cult member, declared unwavering loyalty to their beliefs despite external opposition. She likened their determination to an unstoppable force, saying they would persevere in their faith.

A local resident described the farm as a business producing various goods for sale, including soap, vegetable oil, and furniture. The sect also practiced agriculture and animal husbandry.

Police, accompanied by tear gas and dogs, raided the farm, which revealed that the children were being exploited for manual labor and did not have proper documentation. Social workers helped move the children and women to a shelter.

The sect, considered part of the Apostolic Christian Groups of Zimbabwe, combines traditional practices with Pentecostal teachings. They are recognizable by their distinctive white robes and hold beliefs such as rejection of modern medicine, rejection of formal education and polygamy.

Despite arrests and police intervention, the men who remained on the farm asserted their rights to freely practice their beliefs and criticized the actions of the authorities. They emphasized their industrious nature and self-sufficiency within their community.

Observers noted the efficient operation of the farm, describing it as a self-sufficient enterprise, with members producing a variety of goods for internal consumption and external sale. They also noted the sect's self-reliant approach to dealing with issues such as burial and resource allocation.


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