NAIROBI, Kenya — Kenyan President William Ruto said Monday that the starvation deaths of dozens of followers of a pastor in the south of the country is akin to terrorism.
He said the pastor, Paul Makenzi, who is in police custody belongs to jail and not to any religion.
“Mr. Makenzi … pretends and postures as a pastor when in fact he is a terrible criminal,” Ruto said.
Makenzi was arrested on suspicion of telling his followers to fast to death in order to meet Jesus. A group of emaciated people were rescued alive, but some of those later died. Authorities then turned their attention to dozens of apparent shallow graves on Makenzi’s land.
The total death toll now stands at 47, with 39 bodies exhumed over the weekend, said a statement from the Inspector General of Police, Japhet Koome, who is visiting the area.
The Kenya Red Cross Society on Sunday said 112 people had been reported missing at a tracing desk set up at Malindi, where the pastor’s main church was located.
Ruto says he has instructed law enforcement agencies to thoroughly investigate the matter as a criminal case not linked to any religion.
Ruto, who was elected in 2022, was hyped as the country’s first evangelical Christian president and has not been shy about his faith, openly praying and weeping in churches before he was elected president.
He has nominated several pastors into parliament and government agencies like the anticorruption commission.
Makenzi remains in custody and a court allowed investigators to hold him for two weeks as probe into the deaths of his followers continues.
Police have been exhuming bodies in shallow graves marked with crosses at his 800-acre ranch in the Shakahola area, Kilifi county.
The pastor has been arrested twice before, in 2019 and in March of this year, in relation to the deaths of children. Each time, he was released on bond, and both cases are still proceeding through the court.
Local politicians have urged the court not to release him this time, decrying the spread of cults in the Malindi area.
Cults are common in Kenya, which has a largely religious society.