KINSHASA, CONGO, May 21, 2009— -- In a dirt-floored, back-alley church, 8-year-old Bobby and his 6-year-old brother Henock were made to kneel before a pastor wearing a white, flowing robe adorned with pictures of Jesus.
Looming over the boys, Pastor Moise Tshombe went into a trance, during which he claimed the Holy Spirit took over and the voice of God spoke through him. "I see that witchcraft is in these two," Tshombe said. "The threats inside of them are very strong."
These young brothers were the latest victims in an epidemic of accusations of child witchcraft here in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is raging in the name of Jesus. It continues seemingly unabated despite flags raised by organizations such as the United Nations, Save the Children and Human Rights Watch.
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Bobby and Henock were brought to this pastor by their stepmother, who said she believes her stepsons are witches and claimed the boys were stealing their stepsister's blood and using it to fly at night. Pointing to Henock, whose left arm is covered in bandages, she said that, in the "spirit world," he is an elderly man who injured himself while trying to kill his father. The boys' father was not present; he was out of town on work and apparently unaware of the ceremony.
In a small, squeaky voice, Bobby said that family members had told him he and his brother were infected with witchcraft after eating bread and green beans their older brother gave them.
Tshombe's denunciation appeared to have traumatized the boys, who were barely responsive.
Their fear was not unwarranted; the fate of children accused of witchcraft in the Congo is often nothing short of horrific, critics say.
ABC News' "Nightline" gained exclusive access to four churches, where we saw scores of children -- including toddlers -- who were denounced as witches. The accusers were powerful and often politically connected pastors, who some say get paid to perform so-called "deliverance ceremonies," or exorcisms, which can be unimaginably brutal.
Arnold Mushiete, a social worker for "Our House," a small, Catholic organization funded entirely by donations, which helps children accused of witchcraft, was our guide into this frightening world. He said a new breed of Christian pastors are manipulating the faith.
"Our work is to repair what they have destroyed," he said, "and to give another image of Jesus, not one who tortures children."
Unwanted Children Accused of Witchcraft, Abandoned
Accusing children of witchcraft is a relatively new phenomenon in the Congo. Experts say it's the result of a toxic combination of causes, including decades of war, an economy in collapse, and a new breed of Christian pastors who profit by telling impoverished parents that all of their problems -- economic, medical and emotional -- are caused by the family's weakest members.
Unwanted children are often accused of witchcraft as a pretense for abandoning them. Save the Children estimates 70 percent of the estimated 15,000 street children in the capital city of Kinshasa have been accused of witchcraft.
Why would a parent ever believe their child is a witch? Mushiete says in a culture where death and divorce have destroyed families, parents are easy prey for greedy, ruthless pastors.
On our tour of Christian churches in Congo's capital city of Kinshasa, we saw Pastor Ngoma Madilu Orlain accuse two sisters, Sarah, 13, and Lufuakenda, 9, of being witches -- with their father, Albert Kanza, looking on.
As the terrified sisters begin to cry, their father remains silent.
"I believe she is a witch," Kanza told ABC News. He told us that he trusts the pastor and that in his mind, there can be no other explanation for his money and health problems.
Pastors Perform Gruesome Exorcism to Cast Out Demons
Once a child is accused of witchcraft, the next step is often exorcism -- a casting out of demons. The ritual can be tantamount to torture. We watched as Tshombe poured hot candle wax on the stomach of a clearly emaciated, 11-year-old girl named Noella.
Kneeling in front of a wooden cross, the pastor and his aides held the girl down as the pastor pretended to pull demonic flesh out of her. Noella was screaming in pain.
It appeared to be a cheap, cruel magic trick, but the crowd, including the girl's mother, appeared to believe.
"It had to happen this way because the child is accused of witchcraft," she told ABC News.
Exorcisms Scar Children for Life
The ceremony does not come cheap. Tshombe was charging $50 -- an exorbitant cost in a country where the average annual salary is $100.
He insisted to us that Jesus Christ would approve of his actions.
"I don't do it for money. I do this because the Holy Spirit gave me the gift to cure," he told ABC News. "If I were a liar, you wouldn't see so many people here. That proves that I am not a charlatan."
As cruel as Tshombe is with the children in his church, exorcisms can purportedly be exponentially worse. There are reports of children being beaten, burned, starved and even murdered -- sometimes by members of their own family.
When we find Orlain forcing a little girl to expel evil spirits through an enema, involving a potion made by boiling a supposedly magical wood, he, like Tshombe, is unapologetic.
"Christ chased away evil spirits. That's what we today would call witchcraft," Orlain said.
Even after a child endures an exorcism, the ordeal is often far from over. Many are said to be permanently tainted in the eyes of their family that they're kicked out of the house.
Life for girls accused of witchcraft is especially horrific. Critics say they are often raped, abused and forced into prostitution.
Many of these girls now have children of their own. We saw them leaving the babies on the side of the road to sleep at night while they went off to turn tricks.
Government Fails to Take Action Against Abuse
While there are dozens of organizations working to help kids accused of witchcraft, many activists complain that the Congolese government is not doing enough to address the problem.
ABC News took our evidence directly to a senior government official, Theodore Luleka Mwanalwamba, who heads a special commission to protect children, including those accused of witchcraft in the Congo. He said it's illegal to accuse a child of witchcraft -- unless you have proof.
The government official explained that witchcraft is part of the country's traditional belief system. He says it's possible for a child to be a witch, "if a child has big eyes, black eyes or a bulging tummy."
While the government does not condone physical abuse of children, he told ABC News that the effort to protect children from mistreatment by pastors is problematic since "important people" attend some of the churches in question.
Happy Endings Rare for Accused Child Witches
Because of people like Mushiete, there are sometimes happy endings for accused child witches.
Mushiete has adopted two brothers, Reuben and Joseph, who were kicked out of their homes after they were accused of being witches. They now live with Mushiete, his wife and their two biological sons.
Reuben, 13, told ABC News how he was whipped and beaten by his old family.
When we asked if he was still angry, he cried and said, "No, because my father, Arnold, told me not to be. It's the past. It's over."