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Domestic CP - January 2002

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BBC News Online, 19 January 2002

World: Americas

Atlanta child-beating church warned

By Nick Bryant
in Atlanta

A group of church-goers in America have been told they will lose their children unless they stop whipping them with leather belts.

They are members of the House of Prayer, a controversial African-American church in a down-at-heel area of Atlanta, Georgia, where six families had their children taken away.

They arrive at church in Sunday best - the women in hats and flowered-speckled dresses, the men in suits and heavily-polished shoes.

The children are immaculately turned out - the girls in party frocks, their hair tied in bows - the boys in ties and neatly-pressed slacks.

'Tough love'

Services here can last as long as eight hours, and they regularly feature public beatings.

Young children are held in the air by church elders and whipped with a leather belt, sometimes for as long as 30 minutes.

Their spiritual leader, the Reverend Arthur Allen calls it "tough love" - corporal punishment as an act of human kindness - the best way of instilling discipline in children growing up on crime-ridden streets.

"If we can use milder punishment, then I'm for it. But sometimes it doesn't work, and I can't let them just take over the house," the reverend said.

Children taken to care

The local authorities see things somewhat differently. What the House of Prayer calls tough love, they call child abuse.

Beginning last March, police raided the homes of six members, and took 49 children into care.

The head of child services in the county, Beverly Jones, had no other choice, she says.

"They crossed the line. It's not parents administering tough love, or discipline. This is five adults holding little kids up in the air, beating them, to the point of abuse," Ms Jones said. "It's cruelty to children."

Threat of adoption

The House of Prayer has taken its protest to the streets.

Of the 49 children taken by the authorities all but eight have now been returned home.

The most badly beaten will remain in care unless their parents agree to stop whipping them. If not, they will be put up for adoption.

David and Carla Wilson have faced that agonising choice. Their seven-year-old daughter remains in care, but they would rather see her adopted than agree to the ban on whipping.

"The bible told me, 'whip them, it won't kill them.' So, you know, how can you tell me not to whip my children when they need it, you know. But, I'll never compromise with the devil. That's like compromising my soul," Mr Wilson said.

Back at the House of Prayer, two other families face the same dilemma - of losing their rights as parents to defend their articles of faith.

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