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"For of Such Is the Kingdom of Heaven"

February 20, 2014

Ashaninka children who are accused of witchcraft face punishment that may include beatings, sleep deprivation, and expulsion from their village.

Thirteen-year-old Onelia was accused of a terrible deed she knew she didn’t commit. The female shaman in their Ashaninka tribal village blamed her. She said the child was a witch.

No one believed Onelia. Her parents watched her with suspicion. Even if they did believe their daughter, the family was powerless to intervene. What the shaman said was law.

The nightmare began when an elderly man suffering a painful stomach ailment sought help from the shaman. He wanted to know why he was sick.

The shaman told him she had a dream, and in that dream it was revealed to her that a girl named Onelia had placed a curse on his body.

The ministry oversees a feeding program in two Ashaninka villages.

Everyone was so angry at Onelia. Her parents demanded to know why she would inflict sickness upon an old man. She was terrified as she stood before the village leaders and was pronounced guilty of committing an act of witchcraft.

“Take the child and rid her of the demons,” the village chief ordered the shaman. Onelia’s mother cried as she watched her daughter being led away.

For two weeks the female shaman held Onelia prisoner in her house. She punished the accused girl by placing ground garlic into her eyes. As part of the ritual, she ground hot pepper onto the child’s hands. Onelia was not allowed to sleep so she would not see demons in her dreams.

Condemned without mercy

An indigenous ministry that works with the Ashaninka heard about Onelia’s perilous situation. Her parents attended services at the small church started by one of their gospel workers. Onelia was in the children’s Sunday school class.

Because they have no legal authority within the tribal villages, the missionaries could not simply whisk the child away from the shaman. No police presence exists this far out in the jungle. All they could do was pray.

“My missionary companion and I dedicated ourselves to prayer and fasting, crying out to God for her,” said a local gospel worker. “The shaman had a dream and told Onelia that she no longer had demons. The girl returned to her home, and she now attends church again. God answered us!”

Onelia’s predicament is not the first the ministry has seen. Deep in the Amazon River basin of Central Peru, Ashaninka villages far removed from modern civilization still practice ceremonial rites to appease the spirit world. If someone suddenly becomes ill or is hurt in a freak accident, the assumption is made that a villager has stirred up an evil spirit. Most often it is a child who is assigned blame.

When members of a village become ill, they typically go to the shaman for healing. According to the ministry director, the shaman prepares a steam bath for the patient, adding medicinal leaves and stones. After boiling these items in a pot, he or she bathes the sick person in the steam. Then the shaman pours the contents of the pot onto the ground. He examines the leaves and other objects that appear from the pot. The shaman then names the boy or girl who used the same type of objects to cast a spell on the sick villager.

The shaman usually smokes tobacco or takes a hallucinogenic drug called ayahuasca and has a dream or vision, explained the leader of another ministry. As in Onelia’s case, the shaman “sees” the boy or girl who allegedly performed witchcraft on a person. The shaman formally accuses the child, and his or her parents may punish the child themselves. The child is then brought before the village leaders.

“In many cases the child won’t deny the charge,” said Rosa Contreras Hart, the Latin America Area Director for Christian Aid Mission. “They will say ‘Yes, I did it,’ because they just want to get the punishment over with.

“The children don’t have anyone to defend them. Their parents believe what the shaman says is true,” Contreras Hart added.

Village authorities release the child into the custody of the shaman for punishment to be administered and for the demons to be cast out. The shaman asks the child to show where he buried the leaves or other objects used in the witchcraft ritual.

“The child is forced to dig in the dry earth until the skin peels off his fingers,” said the ministry leader. “In some cases the child disappears because he has been killed.”

Children are taught at a young age to dig insects out of the ground for food.

The practice of punishing children for acts of alleged witchcraft has been carried out by the Ashaninka for generations. Parents have been known to kill or torture their own child if the shaman orders it. Children have been beaten, burned by fire or boiling water, and buried alive, according to reports from two Christian ministries.

One four-year-old boy was accused of being a witch. Hot peppers were put into his eyes and he was starved. A family in another community found him and took him into their home. In another incident, a five-year-old boy’s stepfather burned him with fire when the lad was accused of causing sickness in their village.

Perhaps due in part to the influence of the ministry’s gospel workers, some of these villages are choosing a different means of punishment for children accused of witchcraft. Instead of beatings or physical torture, they are simply expelled from the community.

Whether this solution is any more humane is debatable, as these children essentially become orphans in the jungle. Some settle in neighboring villages if a family is willing to take them into their fold. Others are never heard from again.

Souls of great value

Last year the ministry was able to reach out to several Ashaninka children whose accusations were lifted. Onelia is one of those children. The teenager is doing well and attends the children’s Bible classes that are offered twice a week. Her parents are also studying the Bible and growing in their faith.

Gospel workers seek to help Ashaninka believers gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. They place a special emphasis on in-depth Bible training for Sunday school teachers and other church leaders, so they will be equipped to disciple their own congregations—and lead their neighbors to the Savior.

As the Ashaninka discover the significance of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and His gift of unconditional love, they are no longer enslaved by fear of the powers of the spirits. Their perspective on the value of children changes, too.

Church leaders in the villages receive Bible training so they will be equipped to teach and disciple their own congregations.

“We have seen slow progress in the villages, starting with those who have become leaders in the churches,” said the ministry leader. “When they receive Christ, they see that children are important to Him. Their whole concept about the value of children changes.”

The ministry operates two feeding centers for Ashaninka children, with a portion of the funds provided by Christian Aid Mission. Malnutrition is a chronic problem since the food supply is limited to whatever villagers can hunt or gather.

At a young age, boys and girls are taught to dig insects out of the ground or to collect snails. They catch fish from the rivers and use long poles to pluck plantains from high branches. They also help hunt monkeys and other animals lurking in the forested hills.

To encourage more participation from women in these communities, the ministry relies on them to help prepare and serve meals at the feeding centers. In Onelia’s village a native missionary is teaching the women to sew and is sharing the gospel with them.

The ministry has also opened a school in one village. Last year Christian Aid donors helped provide funds to purchase school supplies, clothing, and shoes for the children.

Deeply grateful, one Ashaninka mother said: “Thank you for thinking about my son. This is his first ever pair of sandals. Now that he has sandals, the ants that cause a three-day fever won’t bite him.”

It is small acts of kindness like these that help build trust with the Ashaninka. With good reason, in general the tribe is fearful of outsiders and the threats they may pose to the land they depend on for survival. Just a few years ago an Ashaninka believer brought a missionary to her village to share the gospel. But first she had to convince the villagers not to shoot him with their bows and arrows!

Although it may take decades for the Ashaninka to fully embrace freedom in Jesus Christ, hearts are opening and lives are being changed.

“We will keep praying and fasting for the protection of the children,” said one ministry worker. “Pray that the teaching of God’s Word may effectively change many lives.”

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