Throughout Nigeria, Pentecostal churches act as a gateway for criminal organizations to traffic young girls across Europe and coerce them into the world of prostitution, according to the Investigative Reporting Project Italy (IRPI).
With more than 500 churches in the country—making them the largest community of Christians after Catholicism—the Pentecostals have established a widespread network for themselves. But while it is meant to be a place for prayer and community, human trafficking has perversed their church’s mission.
Worse yet, it’s not even hiding amongst the shadows anymore, IRPI reports, as known ‘madames’—whose role is to sell girls into sexual servitude and collect their earnings—have front row pews reserved for them in exchange for their sizeable donations to the Church.
These madames recruit young girls with the promise of work in Europe; in exchange for organizing the logistics, they demand that their victims repay them through various employment opportunities, all of which turn out to be prostitution.
In order to bend their victims to their will, the traffickers perform voodoo rituals which involve the girls’ hair, nails or pubic hair; this manipulates them into thinking that if the debt is not repaid, great misfortune will fall upon them and their families, according to IRPI.
Once they arrive in Europe, they are corralled into brothels where their movements are strictly controlled so as to mitigate any chance of escape.
Italian investigators have started to follow these Nigerian human trafficking rings and have noted how the churches’ shepherds are not only aware of their activities, but enable them as well.
“Often, the shepherds try to convince the exploited girls not to file a complaint, or in any case to find a meeting point with the madame without breaking up,” said magistrate Stefano Orsi, a former prosecutor of the district anti-mafia Directorate.
One victim even heard her pastor publicly say “honor your debts” during the homily, with a strong implication that he was addressing those in the audience forced into prostitution.
As to how these pastors can sit by as such atrocities take place, Stefania Russello, who is involved in Italy’s anti-trafficking network, recounted how a shepherd once told her that it was his job “to welcome everyone [in his church], the white sheep and the black sheep.”
Likewise, Lina Trovado, prosecutor for the Court of Catania, noted that these girls “see the pastor as a good person.” But ultimately, it is the shepherds themselves who facilitate their introduction into the world of prostitution in exchange for a fee.
Reportedly, this amounts to a tithe of roughly one-tenth of the girls’ earnings to the church in question, according to IRPI.
Throughout history, and even in the present day, religions have heavily favored those who bestow large monetary donations upon them. In some cases, they have even spread the word that the greater the offering, the greater one’s blessing will be with their Lord, in this life and the next.
And in certain Pentecostal churches across Nigeria, when the madames publicly donate their offerings—or rather their tribute—it also demonstrates the power their criminal networks possess in front of the entire community, IRPI reports.
Symbolically, it is akin to a parasitic, codependent relationship.
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