Kenyan police have uncovered dozens of bodies from graves connected to a Christian pastor, who is being investigated on allegations that he directed his congregants to starve themselves to death, according to the police and local media reports.
The inspector general for Kenya’s police, Japhet Koome, told reporters that homicide detectives and pathologists had exhumed 11 more bodies from a series of shallow graves on Monday, bringing the death toll to 58.
Many of the victims are believed to have been members of the Good News International Church, a “suspected religious cult,” according to a statement from Mr. Koome. The small sect, based near the town of Malindi, is led by a pastor, Paul Nthenge Mackenzie, who was arrested this month.
President William Ruto of Kenya called the allegations “akin to terrorism,” in a televised speech on Monday. “Terrorists use religion to advance their heinous acts,” he said.
Attempts to reach Mr. Mackenzie or a lawyer representing him were not immediately successful.
Mr. Mackenzie was arrested on April 14 after the authorities rescued more than 15 people from his property, four of whom were in critical condition and died soon after, according to media reports.
He was arraigned several days later by a judge in the Malindi Law Courts, who said the pastor would be held for two weeks as the police conducted their investigation.
“The recent discoveries are still ongoing,” said an official in Kenya’s Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, speaking on the condition of anonymity because she was not allowed to speak publicly. “So until the police finish and declare they have exhausted the land and declare there are no more bodies the matter won’t be taken to court.”
The authorities approached Mr. Mackenzie’s property after they received a tip from residents about people who were starving on the land, according to Charles Kamau, the head of criminal investigations in Malindi.
“The information we received is that the people there were being starved after being radicalized by a certain member of a church who told them that their work in this world is done and they should die and go and see their creator,” Mr. Kamau said in an interview with Citizen TV after Mr. Mackenzie’s arrest.
The death toll was expected to rise this week as investigators continued searching for bodies as well as survivors. Some who had already been found alive were still refusing to eat or drink water. At least 112 people have been reported missing, according to the Red Cross, which is helping trace the victims.
Videos taken from the crime scene show officials in hazardous material suits dragging body bags and scouring areas of forest cordoned off by yellow tape.
Kenya’s interior minister, Kithure Kindiki, called the discovery a “massacre” in a statement posted to Twitter on Sunday, adding that it exposed the “clearest abuse of the constitutionally enshrined human right to freedom of worship.”
Security teams had been deployed to help block off 800 acres of forest for the investigation, Mr. Kindiki added in his post. A team of experts deployed by the National Police Service also included forensic investigators and homicide detectives.
Mr. Mackenzie had been arrested in late March as well, at that time in connection with the deaths of two children. In a statement released by Mr. Koome on Monday, the children “were allegedly starved to death on instructions issued by Paul Mackenzie that they observe fasting till death in order to meet their maker.”
“We called for a post-mortem on the deaths at the time, but nothing came of it,” said Walid Sketty, 28, a member of Haki, a human rights group that is working to assist the victims.
In a phone interview, Mr. Sketty said that he had tried to visit Mr. Mackenzie’s property with several colleagues after the pastor’s arrest in late March. “We suspected there were others on the land and we wanted to see if there was anyone we could help,” he said, adding that he was turned away by a group of men carrying machetes.
“We now fault the government for lack of intelligence,” Mr. Sketty said. “This is a matter of human rights: It is the duty of the state to ensure that their lives are not taken away — no matter their faith or background.”
Simon Marks contributed reporting.