The bodies of seven people have been found in a mass grave in an indigenous area of Panama where members of a religious sect were believed to be performing exorcism , officials say.
The victims included a pregnant woman, 32, and five of her children, aged one to 11. The sixth was a neighbour, 17.
Fifteen other people were freed.
Ten people have been arrested on suspicion of murder. The suspects and all victims were thought to belong to the Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous community.
The grave was discovered after three villagers escaped and made their way to a local hospital last weekend, prosecutor Rafael Baloyes said. They then alerted authorities about several families being held by an indigenous-run sect.
On Wednesday, police raided the community, located in a jungle region in north-west Panama some 250km (155 miles) from the capital Panama City.
“They were performing a ritual inside the structure. In that ritual, there were people being held against their will, being mistreated,” said Mr Baloyes. “All of these rites were aimed at killing them if they didn’t repent their sins”.
Inside the makeshift church, officers found a naked woman, machetes, knives and a ritually sacrificed goat, Mr Baloyes said. The site was controlled by a religious sect called the New Light of God, believed to have been operating in the region for about three months.
According to Mr Baloyes, the kidnapping and torture started last Saturday after one of the members claimed to have received “a message from God”. The victims were then kidnapped from their homes, beaten and killed.
The suspects, who include a minor, are expected to appear in court on Friday or Saturday. One of them is the father of the pregnant woman found in the grave, located some 2km from the makeshift church.
Those rescued had bodily injuries and reportedly included at least two pregnant women and some children.
What is exorcism?
Exorcism is a religious or spiritual ritual carried out to supposedly cure people of demonic possession. It remains controversial, in part due to its depiction in popular culture and horror films.
In an article about exorcism for The Conversation academic website, Helen Hall, a lecturer at Nottingham Law School, says the practice “signifies freeing a place, person or even object from some form of negative spiritual influence”.
Beliefs and rituals of a similar description “are found in almost all cultures and faith traditions”, writes Ms Hall, who is also an Anglican priest.
Exorcism, meaning “oath” in Greek, is still widely practised today, most frequently in Christian and Islamic settings. It has “proved to be a dark yet enduring feature of Catholic culture”, Francis Young writes in A History of Exorcism in Catholic Christianity.
In 2018, about 250 priests from 50 countries attended the Vatican’s annual exorcism course amid increasing demand for exorcisms among some of the world’s Catholic communities.
In the Catholic Church, exorcisms are performed by trained priests who recite prayers and excerpts from the Bible intended to drive out demonic entities.
Catholic Online says a possessed person may be bound as the priest traces the sign of the cross over them and sprinkles them with holy water.