Police officials in Kenya on Sunday said they have exhumed 39 bodies of suspected cult members from an area near the coastal town of Malindi, the Associated Press reported.

On April 14, the police had arrested a pastor named Paul Makenzi on allegations that he told his followers to starve themselves in order to “meet Jesus”.

Authorities began digging to look for bodies at the Shakahola area near Malindi on April 21, and exhumed 39 bodies over the weekend. A group of emaciated persons were also rescued alive, but some of them subsequently died. A total of 47 deaths are said to have been linked to the cult.

Photos on social media showed search teams wearing white overalls and masks digging up bodies from the ground.

Authorities have sealed off an 800-acre forest area at Shakahola for the search operation, AFP reported. According to the Kenya Red Cross Society, 112 persons were reported missing at a help desk set up at Malindi.

Makenzi had been leading a movement named the Good News International Church. A tipoff from citizens led the police to raid his property in Malindi, where they discovered 15 emaciated people. Four of them later died.

Kenyan Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki said he will visit the site on Tuesday.

“The unfolding Shakahola Forest Massacre is the clearest abuse of the constitutionally enshrined human right to freedom of worship,” he said on Twitter. “Prima facie, large- scale crimes under Kenyan law as well as international law have been committed.”

The minister added: “While the State remains respectful of religious freedom, this horrendous blight on our consience must lead not only to the most severe punishment of the perpetrator(s) of the atrocity on so many innocent souls, but tighter regulation (including self- regulation) of every church, mosque, temple or synagogue going forward.”

President William Ruto said that the starvation deaths were akin to terrorism, according to AP. He said Makenzi belongs to jail and not to any religion.

“Mr. Makenzi ... pretends and postures as a pastor when in fact he is a terrible criminal,” he said.