Church Disaster Exposes Influence of Mega Churches

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Eighty South Africans were amongst those killed when a building belonging to Pastor TB Joshua, Synagogue Church of All Nations, collapsed in Nigeria. This tragedy has captivated the attention of thousands while T.B Joshua, one of the most famous and wealthiest religious figures on the continent, denies responsibility.

TB Joshua claims to perform miracles. Emmanuel TV, a channel owned by the church, is dedicated to showing miracles has a branch in Rivonia, Johannesburg and is watched throughout RSA and beyond. His followers number in the thousands. His admirers include Professor Atta Mills, former President of Ghana, Julius Malema, leader of EFF, and Morgan Tsvangirai, former Prime Minister of Zimbabwe. Goodluck Johnathan, the Nigerian president, is also a follower, he turned up at the site of the tragedy to express his support for TB Joshua.

It has been confirmed that the original plans of the building were for two stories only. Three more were being added illegally when the disaster occurred.

Five bereaved families in South Africa are planning to take the church to court. Thanduxolo Doro, who made the call for prosecution, lost his sister Vathiswa Madikiza in the tragedy. Representatives of the church met with his family and other families to offer them R5000. Doro defiantly says ‘Whatever you are offering, it can never compare with the life of my sister.” Doro’s sister paid as much as R18000 just to go to the church in Nigeria. A journalist has released an audio recording of TB Joshua trying to bribe journalists to ‘report on the living, not the dead’.

When the building collapsed, church members initially stopped emergency teams and journalists from going to the disaster site. It is not the first time something like this has happened.

Last year, four people died and 30 were injured in a stampede at a service held by TB Joshua in Accra, Ghana. The stampede was triggered by a rumor that holy water normally sold for about $40 a bottle was going to be given away for free.

Journalists at the scene, who were filming an enormous traffic jam caused by the church service, were illegally detained by TB Joshua’s guards. The church was not held accountable for the tragedy.

There is a real basis for this influence which goes beyond spiritual beliefs.

Evangelical pastors have amassed ridiculous wealth. Gone are the days of hermits and supposed saviors riding on donkeys. “Preaching is big business” explains Mfonobong Nsehe. “It’s almost as profitable as the oil business.”

In 2011, Nsehe found that the total wealth of five pastors in Nigeria was R2.1 billion. Topping this list is Bishop David Oyedepo of the Living Faith World Outreach Ministry with about R1,679 billion. Assets include an elite private school, four jets and homes in London and the United States. T B Joshua comes third with about R168 million.

A recent arms scandal in South Africa involves the President of the Christian Association of Nigeria, Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor. His private jet was used to smuggle about R 104 million into South Africa to buy arms for the Nigerian Intelligence Services.

In 2012, 61% of Nigerians were said to live in absolute poverty. In Sokoto state alone the poverty rate is 86%. As the economy grows, driven mainly by oil, the ranks of the poor also swell. Nigeria is the biggest oil producer in Africa which is also home to some of the richest barons on the continent.

Poor education, sanitation and healthcare and declining job opportunities are just a few of the many problems facing the average Nigerian. This is a harsh reality of inequality that many South Africans can understand.

It is not uncommon for people to say they only have God. This also means the state, social order and politics itself has failed them.

As the Ebola virus ravages parts of West Africa, religious explanations have spread. Some pastors have even said the virus emerged because of the sins of the people – a way of scaring people into the church’s arms. This dangerous misinformation absolves the actors who have allowed this disaster to develop. The truth is Western nations and the profit driven global pharmaceutical industry have done next to nothing to stop the epidemic and have underfunded research for a cure.

Yet the chaos and real suffering makes it possible for preachers like TB Joshua to send off specially packaged anointed water to Sierra Leone, when vaccines and basic medical supplies are urgently needed.

‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people’ says Marx.

In times of distress, when insecurity, extreme poverty, inequality and oppression, and uncertainty are widespread, people need hope, even if it is an illusion of hope. Religion is both an expression of and protest against this real suffering. ML King Jr, a preacher who was a leading figure in the black freedom movement in the United States, and Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu who fought against British colonialism, represent this.

We must expose the deceptive nature of the moneybags in religious garb who take advantage of their follower’s genuine desires for wellbeing and happiness to become wealthy. Overthrowing capitalism, and the entire order that sustains it, is the only alternative to eliminating needless suffering. Confronting religion, and supporting progressive traditions in them, will be crucial.

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