Flourishing cargo cult activities in isolated villages in the mountains of Madang province have become a major concern for the people, government and church authorities in the province.
Attempts by Madang police to apprehend 31-year-old cult leader, Steven Tari, and to put an end to his activities have failed so far.
He has remained elusive because of the remote area where he is located. He is also being protected by his followers.
Cargo cult activities are not new to Madang and began around World War Two with the well-known Yali cult, which is still active today. Villagers report that Tari also preaches about the Yali cult and many of his followers are members of Yali.
Tari, who also calls himself ‘Black Jesus’, has attracted a large following amongst the villages in the Transgogol area. Police estimate the number to be about 6000.
Lutheran Church authorities in Madang are particularly concerned because a number of the church’s registered pastors have joined the cult. This has confused church members in the area who are questioning whether the cult activities are being condoned by the church. At the same time, police raids to capture Tari are putting lives of innocent villagers at risk. It is believed that seven people have so far been killed in clashes related to the cult.
Oup Nain, 52, of Baimak village in Transgogol, is one of the many villagers affected and he said they are under immense pressure to join the cult despite efforts by Madang police to arrest Tari.
Last month he travelled to Madang town to find out if Tari was registered to work as a pastor. “We are confused. Who is this person (Tari) representing? Is he registered?”
The Evangelical Lutheran Church has distanced itself from the cult. Church district president in Madang, Pastor Nawon Mellombo, said the church has not sanctioned the cult activity. Instead, he has blamed the local people for keeping Tari amongst them and encouraging his activities.
He described Tari as a ‘false prophet’ and an enemy of the church. He said the church is reaching out to help the people however; it is difficult since the activities of the cult are being kept secretive.
Tari started the ‘Black Jesus’ cult last year at a village called Matepi in the mountains near Madang. Tari whose father and mother are from Manus and Siasi islands respectively, enrolled at the Amron Bible College near Madang to do pastoral studies. However, police say he was expelled from the college for stealing from his fellow students.
Luke Sume, a Seventh Day Adventist church elder, said his teachings at Matepi became controversial when he threatened to burn the bible.
Intervention by Lutheran and SDA church elders had little effect and Tari, together with a growing number of followers, began threatening and stealing from villagers, and closing down churches and schools.
Councillor Paul Sume said Tari stopped the children from attending school claiming he was the long-awaited messiah. He promised people free food, money, clothes and education and health services.
In June 2005, Madang police led by Chief Inspector Jim Namora went into the village and arrested him. Tari faced several charges including spreading wilfully misleading reports, falsely soliciting property and hindering arrest. However, he was not under custody for long. A probation officer and Lutheran pastor Logan Sapus intervened and had Tari released to be kept under his (pastor’s) custody. Tari never appeared in court as scheduled. Instead, he disappeared into the mountains again to a village called Gal with his custodian Pastor Logan and his daughter.
This time Tari was joined by a number of prison escapees who were armed and they formed a strong organisation. They also began recruiting flower girls as young as 12 years old from surrounding villages whom, police believed, were used to satisfy the sexual needs of the escapees who were providing security for Tari.
The activities came to a head in May this year, when he declared a holy war on the area and went on a warpath destroying homes, church buildings, trade stores, cocoa dryers and food gardens in four villages.
Police reported that 67 houses were burnt to the ground and cash crops destroyed. More than 300 homeless people fled from their villagers and remained as refugees in other parts of the province.
Madang police dispatched a force of 11 officers who confronted Tari and his 6000 followers in his mountain base. An estimated 1500 warriors armed with spears charged the heavily armed officers and it is believed that seven warriors were killed in the battled that followed. Tari escaped along with his bodyguards during the clash and police arrested the flower girls who were brought to Madang for trial. The girls were placed under the custody of the Lutheran Church for counselling and the under-aged girls were released into the community to do community work. The older girls are serving time in Madang’s Beon prison.
Villagers report that Tari is hiding in a remote mountainous area and several attempts by police to recapture him have been unsuccessful.