Health

Nigeria preacher: Healer or controversial leader?

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — It's Sunday, and 15,000 people are seated in the enormous arena-like church, fanning themselves against the dusty humid air in Nigeria.

The preacher in a blue flowered shirt taps his microphone to announce "prophecy time." He places his hands on worshippers, who spin in circles, wave their arms in the air and finally collapse to the ground, shaking. They've been delivered.

"Emmanuel!" he shouts. "Emmanuel!" the crowd echoes. A camera crew of 20 scurries around speakers branded with the slogan for his Emmanuel TV station, "Distance is not a barrier." The service is beamed worldwide.

This is T.B. Joshua, one of the best-known preachers in Africa and among the most profitable in Nigeria, the go-to faith healer and spiritual guide for leaders such as the late Ghanaian president John Atta Mills, Malawian president Joyce Banda and former Zimbabwean prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai. Joshua's Synagogue, Church of All Nations has branches around the world, and a recent YouTube video even credits him with predicting the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370.

Yet critics say this wildly popular televangelist hinders efforts to curtail the spread of HIV and tuberculosis with testimonies by church-goers that faith and his holy water can cure both. He is also accused of taking advantage of his followers and tightly controlling those closest to him, who call him "Daddy."

Joshua brushes such concerns aside. "The gospel needs to be preached all over the world," says Joshua, whose full name is Temitope Balogun Joshua, in a rare interview at his church with The Associated Press. "You cannot light a candle and put it under a roof."

Even in Nigeria, a country of 170 million where various forms of evangelical Christianity are practiced passionately in churches around every corner, Joshua stands out for his ambition. His Lagos church has a sprawling campus of restaurants, overflow tents for thousands and dorms for visitors, who all hope to be touched, even if only by proximity, by the man known as "the prophet." Joshua also has satellite centers in London, Greece, Ghana, South Africa and several other countries, along with a 24/7 television station on cable and online that comes with simultaneous translations in French and Spanish.

The man who says he comes from the poor village of Arigidi is worth between $10 and $15 million based on assets, according to Forbes magazine, which in 2011 estimated his personal wealth. His church, however, has become controversial for showing on its website people with testimonies of being healed of HIV. They hold up a required before and after certificate, allegedly signed by a doctor, stating that their HIV-positive status has transformed to negative. UNAIDS notes that there is no available cure for HIV, and any interruptions to medical treatment can have serious health implications and infect others.

"We strongly advise people not to waste their money on T.B. Joshua and his false cures," said Marcus Low, head of policy at the South Africa-based Treatment Action Campaign, which advocates for increased access to treatment and support services for people living with HIV. "Supposed faith healers often lead people to forego effective treatments in the mistaken belief that they have been cured. They exploit the desperation that many sick people feel and use this desperation to enrich themselves."

When asked if he advises followers to forego HIV/AIDS medication for his "anointing water," Joshua responded: "Let me tell you, I am a medium. In the same way, doctors are mediums to bring treatment."

Joshua, 50, claims his mother was pregnant with him for 15 months. Later in life, he says, he fell into a trance for three days and saw a hand pointing a bible at his heart. He started his church more than 20 years ago, and now has allegedly more than 50,000 people visit his Lagos synagogue weekly, including foreigners.

"It's the opposite of sacrifice," said disciple Angela Brandt about working for Joshua. She has stayed on the campus in Nigeria after visiting from California more than a decade ago. She said she was healed of severe scoliosis.

Joshua told the AP that God heals through him, with a smile and confidence that show why he's so beloved to some. He sits in a small office with a blue and white robe over his clothes, with several flat screen televisions visible from his desk. He uses a buzzer to call in — and sometimes shout at — young, barefoot men and women who serve him.

That kind of treatment of his disciples has also raised questions. Former disciple Giles Hurst, 31, says at first he was "lovebombed," a term that can be used to describe when cults or groups shower a recruit with love and accolades to get them to join. But when he became a disciple, Hurst said, he saw the other side.

Competition was fierce among the 200 or so disciples for Joshua's attention, and they were encouraged to "report" each other for behaviors deemed wrong, he said. Sins are confessed in front of others, recorded and archived, according to Hurst and other former disciples. Passports are taken, along with novels and any medications, including mild painkillers or malaria pills, he said of when he was there.

Permission from Joshua in the form of a signed "pass" is needed just to make a phone call or email, Hurst said. "Nobody questions it ... he is a holy man, he can do whatever," Hurst said, a statement backed by interviews with other former disciples.

The danger Joshua posed became clearer, Hurst said, when his mother, who was devoted to the church, started losing her battle with cancer. Hurst claims that she refused chemotherapy because Joshua told her she was healed. And the cancer did shrink at first, but six months later, she was dead.

When Hurst told Joshua the news a few months later, he said the man he called "Daddy" hung up. It was explained to him that "the prophet" didn't like to listen to bad news. Ruth Mackintosh, who is from the U.K., said she's lost her sister, brother-in-law, two nieces and a nephew to the church.

"There is no possibility for meaningful conversation (with them)," she said. "They speak in cliches and set phrases." And many who devote themselves to Joshua, and leave, find themselves without money, a resume or education, Mackintosh and Hurst agreed.

Calls and emails to Joshua's church for reaction to these allegations went unanswered. Money doesn't seem to exchange hands anywhere on the Synagogue, Church of All Nations campus. But to remain a church member, the former disciple explained, you must give. Followers are expected to give about 10 percent of their paychecks, the payments are monitored and people are ranked and seated accordingly, Hurst said. T-shirts, books and frames photos promoting Joshua are also for sale.

However, even former disciples agree that Joshua himself does give a lot money to charity and in scholarships. Joshua defended his church's resources. "Without material and money, I wouldn't be able to carry out so much huge, huge, huge, huge ... People come here for support," Joshua said.

Hundreds of foreigners gathered at Lagos airport recently, going back home after visiting Joshua's church campus. They wore Emmanuel TV T-shirts, laughed and exchanged stories of their strengthened faith, love and hope, intoxicated by their time with Joshua — he talked with each individually during their weeklong stay.

Sithini Mahola, a 36-year-old woman from South Africa, explained Joshua's draw: "The problems you face, maybe you aren't strong enough to overcome, so you need someone stronger to commit to your faith."

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