The CRL Rights Commission has heard that emotional and psychological abuse, as well as sexual and financial exploitation are the hallmarks of cult churches.

The commission held a virtual hearing on Wednesday where experts in various fields shared their thoughts and experiences. It’s part of the commission’s investigation into the commercialisation of religion and the abuse of people’s belief systems.

The investigation was prompted by complaints it received of cult-like practices at some churches, as well as videos that went viral on social media showing some pastors feeding their congregants snakes and grass.

Former leader of an occult church Jay Israeli says these churches are about money and power and emphasise loyalty to the leader.

“There are also women sacrifices that are done [happening]. If you’re part of the cult, and if you’re a pastor or a prophet, you have to sleep with virgin girls to enhance your power of growing the church, or power to perform science and wonders, power to perform miracles … you have to sleep with virgin girls.”

“Two or three virgin girls every week, and at times you have to sleep with one or two or at least three women before the service, before you go and stand on the altar to preach. You have to sleep with a woman, and when you’re done, there’s a ritual that is done,” explains Israeli.

‘Manipulating and brainwashing’

Different speakers expressed similar sentiments on how cult-like church leaders thrive on manipulating and brainwashing their congregants.

Psychiatrist Dr Lennart Eriksson says these leaders prey on the vulnerable and offer hope for a heavenly future and relief from suffering. He says they create a mystical experience for their congregants, which is very powerful.

“They work people up into a state of ecstasy, so the people who run cult-like churches know that once they’ve developed a mystical experience in a person, that person is captured, that person will stick around and be dedicated.

“They feel that the church will allow them to have transcendence that will move them from position A to position B. And position A might be dreadful, horrible, poverty-struck and etc. and the transcendence will allow them to become successful and financially independent,” adds Eriksson.

Prof. David Luka Mosoma on phenomena of cult-like churches vs true churches: 

Sociologist Dr Alex Asakitikpi warns that more cult-like churches may crop up in the next few years, as their leaders will be preying on people who have suffered financial loss due to the economic devastation of COVID-19 and the lockdown.

“COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed a lot of people’s lives. If the government does not identify those key vulnerable people that this pandemic and the lockdown has so significantly affected, and try to support them, chances are there that in the next three to five years, we’ll see a more radical and proliferation of cult groups because they’ll begin to target them to become new members,” adds Asakitikpi.

He says these church practices need thorough research in order to come up with suitable interventions.

“We are merely just scratching the surface. This is purely theoretical. We must go beyond this, to begin to conduct in-depth, inter-disciplinary research that will give us a true understanding of what is going on. And it is within that framework that we can design intervention strategies that will discourage this type of activity that we see today,” explains Asakitikpi.

Some have called for the finances of cult-like church leaders to be scrutinised as they tend to live a luxurious life, while their congregants suffer.