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The witchcraft summit sometimes deteriorated into debate over whether anyone has the power to strike down an enemy with lightning or turn a rival into a zombie.

But for the most part, the 100 or so politicians, scholars and ministers gathered in a chilly auditorium Friday had little time for phil-o-sophical questions.They were desperate to find a way to stop the violence that no one denies is real: hundreds of alleged witches have been burned or stoned to death in this barren corner of South Africa in recent years.

"There's no way we can say, `So-and-so cannot believe in witches,"' said Seth Nthai, the provincial Cabinet minister in charge of police. "Belief is not a problem of law and order. Violence is a problem of law and order."

The Northern Province Council of Churches organized the summit in part in response to Nthai's pleas for help educating people in the region about what many see as a tragic distortion of traditional beliefs.

Nthai suggested better science education, particularly on the subject of lightning. The rainy season, when lightning sets fire to huts that dot the Northern Province's brush-covered plains, is high witch-hunting season.

Newspapers across the country occasionally report on families refusing to bury a relative, convinced that the corpse is a zombie that can be brought back to life if the right spell is cast.

But only in Northern Province has it become almost commonplace to hear of deadly attacks on people believed to be witches.

Exact figures are hard to come by. A task force appointed by Nthai pored over police reports from 1985 to 1995 in one area of the province and found more than 300 deaths could be traced to alleged witchcraft.

Hundreds more people chased from their homes by mobs have established "witch villages" in the province - refugee camps for outcasts.

Abraham Maharala has lived for the past two years in one such village, located just a few miles from the community hall where experts discussed witchcraft.

Maharala's story began innocently enough, with a son bringing home a gift from Johannesburg - a portable stereo. The family celebrated with an impromptu party.

"The villagers accused us of dancing naked all night. They said we were practicing witchcraft," he said. He denied he was a witch, but said: "I realized the danger was imminent, so I escaped. They burned my houses."