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Australian Christian Group Fights Claim It Was Linked to Leader of Kenya Starvation Massacre Doomsday Cult

A Christian doomsday cult responsible for the deaths of more than 400 people from starvation and beatings in Kenya was influenced by an Australian religious group, a parliamentary committee report in the east African nation has found.

The report into the Shakahola massacre, tabled in the Kenyan Senate on 19 October, found that the accused leader of the group, Paul Nthenge Mackenzie, “was influenced by Dave Mackay and Sherry Mackay [Dave and Cherry McKay] from Australia who are founders of a cult movement known as the Voice in the Desert”.

The influence was “largely established through virtual links and social media”, the report found. It also said an “associate” of Dave McKay gave a sermon at Mackenzie’s Good News International church in 2019.

On 3 May 2023 the X/Twitter account for A Voice in the Desert posted: “Recently there has been a tragedy in a church in Kenya that we had links to. Over 100 members of the church have starved themselves to death!” The post promoted an article which has since been removed from the group’s website.

But Dave McKay flatly rejected the report’s finding, saying neither he nor his wife had ever had any contact with Mackenzie, and denied his group’s links had any relevance to the massacre.

“I was aware of him through what I read in Kenya media reports, and I had second and third-hand information from a visit a member made to his meeting in Kenya in 2019,” McKay told the Guardian. “That was the full extent of our ‘links’. We had absolutely no contact with anyone from Mackenzie’s movement between then and when the news broke about the massacre in April of this year.”

According to the Kenyan Senate committee report, which is publicly available on the parliamentary website, McKay’s associate delivered a sermon in 2019 “echoing anti-government sentiments”, particularly in relation to a national identification scheme called the Huduma Namba (also referred to as Huduma Number), labelling it “the mark of the beast”.

On 11 May 2019 the Facebook page of Times TV Kenya, which was run by Mackenzie, posted that he had been released on bail after allegedly urging people not to register for the Huduma number in Malindi. Dave McKay made several comments under the post, including that it was “disappointing” that Mackenzie had not been cleared in the case. In one comment, McKay linked to a now deleted YouTube video titled “Kenyan government targets pastor over huduma 666 claim”.

The following day, McKay’s “associate” (whom he declined to name) spoke at Mackenzie’s Good News International church in Makongeni, outside Nairobi, a recording of which was posted on YouTube. The man delivered a sermon after opening remarks on the supposed connections between the advent of a cashless society, the Huduma identification card and “the mark of the beast”.

“My friends and I understood from the videos on YouTube about what happened to brother Mackenzie down in Malindi, when he was preaching about the Huduma card,” the man said.

“My brothers and sisters from around the world also feel that the Huduma card is getting us closer to the mark of the beast.”

At the end of the sermon, the man said anyone interested should visit the YouTube channel of A Voice in the Desert, before a video from that channel was played. The narrator of the video said “the Huduma card in Kenya represents the closest that any government has so far come to the actual mark [of the beast]”.

The mark of the beast is referred to in the book of Revelation, which states that a false prophet will be branded with a symbol of the antichrist. Many End Times groups, including A Voice in the Desert, believe that modern technologies such as RFID chips will be used by worshippers of the antichrist as the last days on Earth approach.

In response to questions from Guardian Australia, McKay said the man’s sermon was the extent of his group’s contact with Mackenzie.

“All of our interest in Mackenzie related specifically to the Huduma Namba and its relevance to the mark of the beast,” he said.

“We had absolutely no contact with anyone from Mackenzie’s movement between then [2019] and when the news broke about the massacre in April of this year,” he said.

McKay said he had not been contacted by Senate investigators, and he was “shocked” to hear that he and his wife had been named in the committee’s report.

Following publication of the report, A Voice in the Desert posted a video on YouTube denying the committee’s allegations and pointing to allegedly inaccurate stories in the Kenyan media as the basis for the claims in the report. It also specifically denied that A Voice in the Desert was a cult.

Horror in the forest

The tragedy among followers of the Good News International Church first came to light in March but the full horror unfolded gradually over subsequent months.

In May the Kenyan Senate established the committee with a brief to investigate the mounting death toll in the remote forest in the south-east of the country.

The report found that Mackenzie “recruited hundreds of vulnerable people” to join his church through agents in different parts of Kenya “who systematically lured followers to their death through deceptive recruitment tactics which he intensified during the uncertainty and anxiety occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic”.

As of 13 October, 428 bodies had been exhumed from the forest, the report found. More than 600 people had been reported missing to local authorities earlier in the year.

Followers were instructed to renounce their worldly possessions and move to the Shakahola forest, which caused them “to cut links with family members thus leaving them dependent and without protection”, the report found.

Once there, Mackenzie directed his followers “to begin fasting in readiness for the end of the world and their transition to meet Jesus”, it found.

The report said those who disobeyed his instructions were subjected to mock trials. The orders were enforced by an armed gang, it found, which Mackenzie “employed to violently enforce his starvation doctrine by attacking and killing followers” who changed their minds about starving themselves to death.

Children were subjected to “painful and slow death by starvation,” while “lactating mothers were not allowed to breastfeed their young ones”, the report found.

Mackenzie was arrested in March in connection with the murder of two children “who had succumbed to starvation and suffocation”, but was released on bail and “intensified the starvation orders” on his return to the forest, the report found.

He was rearrested in April and remains in custody while investigations continue but has yet to be charged over any deaths in the forest.

Long history of controversy

A Voice in the Desert, formerly known as the Jesus Christians, has long courted media attention with stunts including burning money, wading through sewers in India and whipping trials of members.

Formed in 1981 by the McKays, both US-born Australians, the group encourages followers to subject themselves to extreme trials and take vows of poverty. It has established branches in Australia, the UK, United States, Mexico and Kenya, among others.

The McKays preach beliefs including that a secret cabal is working to insert the mark of the beast on society, and that salvation is paramount because Jesus is about to return.

Unlike many End Times groups, they believe in celibacy and remaining single, with marriage as a last resort for those seeking sexual activity. Rather than seeking money, members are encouraged to give up their possessions and find free sources of food, with limited funds and assets pooled for use by the group.

The McKays gained notoriety in a 1985 ABC documentary about a group of Jesus Christians, including children, who set off to walk across the Nullarbor desert with no provisions. In 2003, a documentary by the British journalist Jon Ronson called Kidneys for Jesus reported on the group’s practice of donating their kidneys to strangers.

In 2005, Jesus Christians claimed they had paid bail and a bribe to release an Australian member, Roland Gianstefani, who had been detained in Kenya on abduction charges.

Gianstefani and his wife, Susan, had previously been given suspended six-month jail sentences in 2000 by a court in Britain after refusing to reveal the whereabouts of a teenager, Bobby Kelly, who left home to join the Jesus Christians.

The group is believed to have then spent about a decade largely underground, before relaunching on YouTube as End Times Survivors and A Voice In The Desert in 2016.

The report to the Kenyan Senate recommended that authorities investigate “with a view to expel” from Kenya any foreigners advancing the views of A Voice in the Desert and Jesus Christians, and ban them from future entry to the country.

The chair of the committee that produced the report, Senator Mungatana Danson Buya, did not respond to a request for comment.

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it was aware of reports relating to the deaths associated with the Good News International church, but it had not been contacted by Kenyan authorities in relation to the matter.

Source: The Guardian