NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Kenyan President William Ruto on Monday compared the dozens of starvation deaths among the followers of a pastor in the south of the country with the results of terrorist acts, as the new death toll rose to 73.
He maintained that the pastor, Paul Makenzi, who is in police custody, should be in prison.
“What we are seeing … is akin to terrorism,” Ruto said. “Mr. Makenzi … pretends and postures as a pastor when in fact he is a terrible criminal.”
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 them later died. Authorities then turned their attention to dozens of shallow graves marked with crosses on Makenzi’s 800-acre ranch.
The total death toll now stands at 73, with 26 new bodies exhumed on Monday, Malindi sub-county police chief John Kemboi told the Associated Press.
Kemboi said investigators had received reinforcements and were able to cover more ground.
The Kenyan 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 said he had 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 his election.
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 a probe into the deaths continues.
The pastor had 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.