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A recent rise in the number of people accused of witchcraft—particularly African children—isn't just an issue for missionaries to address, say scholars. It's also a problem they may be contributing to.

An entire track of the annual missiology conference at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School this February was devoted to witchcraft, a topic usually neglected by the field.

"We had thought this was a phenomenon that would die out," said Robert Priest, professor of missions and intercultural studies at Trinity. "Instead we are finding that the conditions of modernity—urbanization and social differentiation under capitalism—are contributing to accusations getting stronger and stronger."

Presenters hope the conference will prompt missionaries to focus more on the subject.

"Most missionaries go out knowing the answer—namely, Christ—without knowing the questions the local people are asking that the local religion answers," said Carol McKinney, an anthropologist who teaches at the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics. "Questions like, 'Why did something happen to John and not to Joe when John and Joe were at the same place?'?"

Witchcraft often provides answers, whether in traditional African cultures, India, or Papua New Guinea. Someone is accused of bringing evil on another, often because the "witch" is jealous of that person's good fortune.

Missionaries have commonly responded in two ways, said Priest. The power of witches to harm others is dismissed as superstition, but this seldom persuades local Christians to abandon the concept; or the reality of witchcraft is endorsed by missionaries not wanting to be "post-Enlightenment rationalists" with a non-biblical skepticism of spiritual warfare.

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March 2011

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