Akwa Ibom state, Nigeria (CNN) — Just after midnight, the pastor seized a woman’s forehead with his large hand and she fell screaming and writhing on the ground. “Fire! Fire! Fire!” shouted the worshippers, raising their hands in the air.
Pastor Celestine Effiong’s congregants are being delivered from what they firmly believe to be witchcraft. And in the darkness of the city and the villages beyond, similar shouts and screams echo from makeshift church to makeshift church.
“I have been delivered from witches and wizards today!” exclaimed one exhausted-looking woman.
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Pastors in southeast Nigeria claim illness and poverty are caused by witches who bring terrible misfortune to those around them. And those denounced as witches must be cleansed through deliverance or cast out.
As daylight breaks, and we travel out to the rural villages it becomes apparent the most vulnerable to this stigmatization of witchcraft are children.
A crowd gathered around two brothers and their sister. Tears streamed down their mother’s face as she cast out her children from the family, accusing them of causing the premature deaths of two of their siblings with black magic.
“I am afraid. They are witches and they can kill me as well,” she sobbed.
Taking his time to talk to the mother, Sam Ikpe-Itauma, an imposing man wearing a “Child’s Rights & Rehabilitation Network” t-shirt, has come to try to rescue the three children.
“If we are not here there’s a possibility of them being thrown into the river, buried alive or stabbed to death,” Sam said.
He tries to persuade their mother and a crowd of villagers that the three children are not witches – but no one believes him. And so, putting the children in his white pick-up, he drives away to his orphanage and safety.
Sam runs Child’s Rights & Rehabilitation Network, or CRARN — an orphanage that supports nearly 200 children. All of them were accused of witchcraft and cast out by their families, often after being tortured. The orphanage provides security, healthcare, nutrition and counseling.
Godwin’s story is typical. As he sat next to the quiet 5-year-old, Sam said that after Godwin’s mother died, the church pastor told his family that “Godwin is responsible.”
From his own investigation, questioning Godwin and talking with neighbors, Sam said that when a relative asked Godwin if he was a witch, “he said no and was beaten and made the confession that he actually killed the mother.”
Sam said Godwin was locked up with his mother’s corpse every night for three weeks with little food or water before a neighbor contacted Sam, who was able to rescue him.
Other children at his orphanage bear the scars of being beaten, attacked with boiling water, and cuts from machetes. But these children are the ones lucky to be alive.
• Watch more about the extent of Nigeria’s child witch scandal on CNN International’s Connect The World this week at 2000 GMT