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Zimbabwean prophet charged in court over child labor

Ishmael Chokurongerwa, 56, a "self styled" prophet is seen at his shrine on a farm about 34 kilometers (21 miles) north of the capital, Harare, Wednesday, March, 13, 2024   -  
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A man calling himself Prophet Ishmael was charged in a Zimbabwean court Thursday, after police raided the compound where he led a religious sect and found more than 250 children being kept away from school and used as cheap labor.

Police also discovered 16 unregistered graves, including those of seven infants, at the farm about 34 kilometres (21 miles) northwest of the capital, Harare.

Ishmael Chokurongerwa and seven of his aides were charged with exploiting children and denying them access to education and health services. Police spokesman Paul Nyathi said investigations were still ongoing and authorities may press more charges.

The sect leaders are also accused of breaking laws that require deaths and burials to be registered. State media reported there were around 1,000 people living on the farm before the raid.

Chokurongerwa, 56, and his aides will remain in custody after a magistrate said at their court hearing that she would rule on their bail application next week. None of the men had legal representation at the hearing and it was unclear where they were being held.

The men pleaded with the magistrate to release them on bail, saying they were not violent people and had children to look after who would suffer if they were sent to prison.

Some of Chokurongerwa’s followers travelled to the court hearing in the nearby town of Norton to show support for him.

"This religion is a great religion of God and nobody will stop it," said church member Tabeth Mupfana, a 34-year-old woman who said she was born into the sect when it was at another location and had not experienced any abuse. "We are not afraid and we are unstoppable."

Armed police officers with tear gas and dogs arrived on the farm Tuesday in trucks.

Police returned to the farm Wednesday with social workers and rounded up children and women, many of them with infants, and took them on buses to a shelter.

The sect is believed to be one of Zimbabwe's many Apostolic Christian groups, whose followers are noticeable by their long white robes, with women and girls also wearing white headscarves.

The Apostolic groups fuse traditional beliefs with a Pentecostal doctrine. Some are reclusive and shun modern medicine, keep children away from school and practice polygamy.

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