The Persecution of Witches, 21st-Century Style
2014-07-11 0:00

By Mitch Horowitz | NYTimes

Most people believe that the persecution of “witches” reached its height in the early 1690s with the trials in Salem, Mass., but it is a grim paradox of 21st-century life that violence against people accused of sorcery is very much still with us. Far from fading away, thanks to digital interconnectedness and economic development, witch hunting has become a growing, global problem.

In recent years, there has been a spate of attacks against people accused of witchcraft in Africa, the Pacific and Latin America, and even among immigrant communities in the United States and Western Europe. Researchers with United Nations refugee and human rights agencies have estimated the murders of supposed witches as numbering in the thousands each year, while beatings and banishments could run into the millions. “This is becoming an international problem — it is a form of persecution and violence that is spreading around the globe,” Jeff Crisp, an official with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, told a panel in 2009, the last year in which an international body studied the full dimensions of the problem. A report that year from the same agency and a Unicef study in 2010 both found a rise, especially in Africa, of violence and child abuse linked to witchcraft accusations.

More recent media reports suggest a disturbing pattern of mutilation and murder.


Witch hunting is far from limited, however, to acts of sadistic vigilantism or profiteering. Some legal systems even sanction the killing of accused witches.

In 2011, courts in Saudi Arabia sentenced a man and a woman, in separate cases, to beheading after convictions for sorcery. In 2013, Saudi courts sentenced two Asian housemaids to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison on charges of casting spells against their employers.

A Lebanese television psychic, Ali Hussain Sibat, was arrested in 2008, while on pilgrimage to Medina, by the Saudi religious police for hosting a television show in his native Lebanon, “The Hidden,” where he would make predictions and prescribe love potions and spells. After an outcry by Amnesty International and others, the Saudi courts stayed Mr. Sibat’s execution by beheading, but sentenced him in 2010 to a 15-year prison term.

As in Africa, the wave of anti-witch activity in Saudi Arabia is fairly new. The Saudi religious police devised an Anti-Witchcraft Unit in 2009, resulting in the arrests of 215 alleged “conjurers” in 2012.

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