KAMPALA (Reuters) - As the miracle-healer descended from the sky in an immaculate white helicopter, his disciples cheered with joy: “Hallelujah! Praise Jesus.”
Gospel songs thundered through the speakers as televangelist Benny Hinn landed outside Uganda’s national stadium last month, before addressing 40,000 enraptured faithful.
His white suit picked out by floodlights, the U.S.-based preacher promised a “miracle crusade” to heal the sick, make the blind see and the lame walk. “In Jesus’ name, lift your hands and sing,” he cried, almost drowned out by cheering.
Pentecostal religion is mushrooming in Africa.
Promising prosperity, miracle cures and life-changing spiritual experiences, the “born again” faiths that are the staple of America’s multi-millionaire televangelists are fast taking over the world’s poorest continent.
For many, they offer hope. In Hinn’s front seats, ringed with collection buckets, sat people in wheelchairs, AIDS patients, children with deformities.
“I want the power of the Lord to descend on me and lift me out of this chair. I want to be like you,” said John Wilson, a 58-year-old Ugandan who broke his spine in a car accident.
The U.S. Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life says Pentecostalism is growing globally, with a quarter of the world’s 2 billion Christians thought to be members of these faiths that emphasise speaking in tongues, divine healing, prophesy and a strongly literal interpretation of Bible stories.
In Africa all churches are booming, but Pentecostalism is overtaking traditional Catholic and Anglican faiths brought by European colonisers over a century ago.
“FERVENT PRAYER, 24 HOURS”
Pentecostals and charismatics now account for 147 million Africans, 17 percent of the continent’s people, compared with 5 percent in 1970, the World Christian Database says.
South Africa’s Apostolic Faith Mission is its biggest church. A third of urban South Africans are Pentecostals.
Last year, one million Kenyans -- nearly one in 30 -- attended a service by American preacher T. D. Jakes in Nairobi.
Nigeria, with 130 million people, is full of barn-like buildings with names like the “Mountain of Fire and Miracles”, drawing a million or more worshippers for all-day prayer.
A camp along Lagos-Ibadan expressway advertises “fervent prayer, 24 hours”.
Pentecostalism’s success owes much to energetic missionaries, especially from the United States, who are increasingly focusing on Africa.
Leaders of the U.S. religious right such as Sam Brownback, a Republican presidential candidate, have encouraged Africa missions, citing Biblical reasons for caring for the poor.
Missionary activity has so worried Africa’s Islamic north that Algeria passed a law in 2005 making it a criminal offence to convert Muslims to another faith.
Last November, a Moroccan court sentenced an Egyptian-born German citizen to six months jail for converting Muslims there.
South of the Sahara, though, the missionaries seeking to save African souls are well received.
Christians say the ecstatic experiences offered by Pentecostals are more exciting than the subdued worship -- complete with silent congregations and soporific organ music -- that the continent’s first missionaries brought here.
“Africans want things done powerfully,” said Rev. Nathan Samwini of the Christian Council of Ghana. “You meet white evangelicals from America, they behave like Africans. They are vibrant, everything is done with vigour.”
For Pentecostals, the Holy Spirit -- the third person of the Christian Trinity -- plays an active role in life, performing miracles and answering prayers. This appeals greatly to a continent beset by poverty and sickness.
“The success of Pentecostalism is the focus on people’s problems in this life,” said Allan Anderson, Professor of Global Pentecostal Studies at England’s Birmingham University.
“In countries where people are living on the breadline, Pentecostalism gives hope.”
Analysts say Pentecostal churches started flourishing in the 1980s, as African nations suffered economic decline on falling world commodity prices.
Destitute farmers poured into slums, seeking dwindling city jobs and creating an urban underclass in need of a new dream.
“In the 1980s, our country started having serious problems,” said Abbot Justin Bile, from St. Joseph’s in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a nation ruined by kleptocracy and war.
“The suffering of the population pushed them to seek material solutions. If there’s a pastor promising a visa, job, or marriage, people flock to them.”
Politicians have also contributed to Pentecostalism’s rise by welcoming foreign evangelists. Some, like Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, seek favour with the televangelist-backed U.S. administration, analysts say.
Others, like Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe and Ghana’s former president Gerry Rawlings, faced criticism from traditional church leaders and turned to Pentecostal churches to fill a legitimacy gap.
America’s preachers have long grasped the potential material rewards of their spiritual gifts.
Hinn has said he earns up to $1 million (500,000 pounds) a year, lives in a $10 million seaside mansion and owns a private jet. Creflo Dollar, who visited Uganda this month, drives a Rolls Royce.
Africa’s preachers are learning fast.
At Uganda’s Holy Fire Ministry -- a marquee beside a dirt track near the airport -- hundreds line up for blessings from “Prophet” Pius Muwanguzi, whose purported talents include curing AIDS by touching the forehead.
In the kneeling congregation: a polio victim, a blind man and a girl who lost her phone.
The pastor touches an old woman, she faints. Then out come the collection envelopes. Minimum is 100,000 Uganda shillings (31.25 pounds), although the poor can give as little as 10,000 to receive a blessing.
Muwanguzi, whose own blessings include a smart suit and a new Toyota Land Cruiser, declined an interview. But his secretary Jackie Kamanyire said payments were voluntary.
“If you feel like sowing a seed, you sow. It comes from your heart. The Prophet cures AIDS, cancer and sickle cell disease with his blessings.”
Cameroon’s Pierre Anatole Mbezele, who stages miracles at his Yaounde church, gets showered with lavish gifts, including on two occasions a Mercedes Benz.
Francis Adroa gave her car to a Ugandan church promising to cure her of HIV/AIDS. The miracle failed, she got sicker. And she’s now a pedestrian.
Moses Malay heads a Ugandan organisation helping what he calls victims of “pulpit fraud” after quitting a church whose pastor claimed divine powers.
“I saw people robbed and I participated. How do they do it? Simple. They instil hope, they nurture it, they reap.”
Faith healers insist there is no fraud.
“When I touch someone, I can feel God working through me,” said Pastor Luke Jaymin of Kampala’s Nakawa Pentecostal Church. “I know it’s true.”
Additional reporting by Rebecca Harrison in Johannesburg, Estelle Shirbon in Lagos, Ed Stoddard in Dallas, Joe Bavier in Kinshasa, Orla Ryan in Accra, Lamine Chikhi in Algiers, Tom Pfeiffer in Rabat and Tansa Musa in Yaounde