Sahara TV has a telephone interview with Pastor Godwin Umotong, who runs a franchise of Helen Ukpabio’s Liberty Gospel Church in Houston. Ukpabio was due to visit Houston in March, provoking the threat of protests; the Houston Press reported at the end of January (links added):
…The Pentecostal cleric [Ukpabio] claims to have the power to identify and exorcise “witch children” who are possessed by the devil.
…critics, such as Staise Gonzalez, say that once children are identified as witches, especially in areas where people believe in sorcery, they are tortured and sometimes killed.
“These suspected witches have been treated in brutal and inhumane ways,” says Gonzalez, who is organizing 12 days of protest to correspond with Ukpabio’s appearance, scheduled from March 14 to March 25.
… An online petition through change.org is attempting to block U.S. entry to Ukpabio.
…Meanwhile, the Stand Against Helen Ukpabio Facebook page, created three weeks ago by Gonzalez, has nearly 900 likes as of the time this post was published.
However, Umotong has now told Sahara TV that the visit has been postponed to May.
The Sahara TV interviewer, Chika Oduah, gives Umotong plenty of rope with questions about his and Ukpabio’s beliefs (“Where are the mermaids*, by the way? Are they in the Gulf of Mexico?”), but for the most part Umotong manages to avoid hanging himself: he emphasises that Ukpabio is coming to Houston to help consenting individuals, and that he is not overly concerned with witches – he tells Oduah that child-witchcraft did not come up during Ukpabio’s previous visit to Houston, in 2010, and that he himself only “prays” for those who need his help. However, he also states that children can be “initiated” into witchcraft.
It is important not to conflate Ukpabio’s practices with those of some other “ministries”, in which peripatetic healers perform bizarre and abusive rituals, or where children are harmed or abandoned after being identified as being witches. In contrast, witches who are brought to her church are simply prayed over, and once cured the former “witch” is reintegrated with his or her family.
Umotong makes the same distinction, but that does not get Ukpabio off the hook: children will only ever be safe from harm from witchcraft-related stigmatisation when belief in child witches has been eradicated. Ukpabio’s teaching keeps this harmful belief alive, and not everyone adversely influenced by her books and DVDs will come to her church. Further, to tell a child that he or she has caused family misfortune or bereavement through being a witch is obviously grotesquely cruel in itself.
It should also be noted that Ukpabio exhibits malign behaviour: her targets have included a man who runs a hostel for stigmatised children, whom she denounced as a “wizard”; the governor of Akwa Ibom state, whom she warned to “remember what happened to Saddam Hussein”; and the British actress Sophie Okonedo, who narrated the Channel 4 documentary on child-witches that brought her to wider attention. Ukpabio has also personally endorsed crudely abusive websites registered by her webmaster; new sites have now appeared ahead of her visit to Houston.
*”Mermaids” is a reference to a traditional African belief in water spirits known as “Mami Wata”. These spirits are venerated in traditional religion; some African Christians regard them as demonic beings.
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