Tragedy puts controversial Angolan church on spot
It was marketed as "The Day of the End", offering spiritual solutions to problems of debt, disease and broken relationships, and it drew a crowd of about 250 000 to an old football stadium in the Angolan capital Luanda.
Tragically though, the posters for the gathering organised by the Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus (IURD), known in South Africa by its English name: the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, proved paradoxically prophetic.
Sixteen people, including several young children, lost their lives in a stampede when thousands surged to enter the stadium, ramming against locked gates and slipping on spilt "holy water".
One online observer wrote that the church had encouraged people to "bring the whole family" but had ended up "leading its sheep to slaughter rather than salvation".
As well as the fatalities, more than 120 were injured at the New Year's Eve event and following an inter-ministerial inquiry, the church, along with six other unrelated and unregistered Pentecostal churches, has been slapped with a 60-day suspension.
The Angolan presidency blamed "misleading publicity" – which, in the days and weeks beforehand, had been widely disseminated by state and public media and on billboards around Luanda – for a turnout that far exceeded the stadium's capacity.
A criminal investigation of the church has now been launched, based on violation of advertising legislation, and laws regarding religious assembly and public events will be revised.
The move has been welcomed by those who dislike the church – which has scores of branches in South Africa and is present in more than 30 countries on the continent as well as in Asia, Europe and America – and its reputation for allegedly extorting money from its vulnerable flock.
But others have questioned whether the suspension violates article 41 of Angola's Constitution, which enshrines the right to "freedom of conscience, religion and worship".
The tragedy and the government's reaction has also shone an uncomfortable spotlight on the church's links to high-ranking members of the ruling MPLA, such as Bento Joaquim Sebastião Bento, the governor of Luanda and the MPLA's first secretary there.
According to an Angolan journalist and anti-corruption campaigner, Rafael Marques, the country's president of nearly 34 years, José Eduardo dos Santos, is also reported to have personal links to the church, which Marques claimed was used by the MPLA to mobilise voters and launder money.
The get-tough stance on the church was a shock to many in Angola, who assumed the church would be left unscathed due to its "connections" and the fact that the presidency's suspension announcement came more than two weeks past the initial deadline set for a response to the tragedy.
Several people blogged that there had been a whitewash and the government was shielding a church that is said to encourage members to donate 10% of their salary each month and to welcome additional donations to help solve specific problems or ailments.
Said Father Jacinto Pio Wakussanga, an outspoken Catholic priest from the southern city of Lubango: "It is very strange that the government has suspended the church when we know about the links between itself and the church and all its supposed financial interests."
Hold to account
Since the announcement of the suspension, a handful of church services have taken place, though it is understood that the police prevented them from being held in Luanda, and a highly publicised launch of a book by church founder Bishop Edir Macedo, due to be held at an MPLA-owned conference venue in the city, was also cancelled.
Critics of the church, who say the December 31 tragedy vindicates their concerns about it, are calling for it to be shut down for good, but Marques said this was unlikely.
"The suspension is a smokescreen," he said.
"It is a way of pushing blame onto the church and to avoid having to hold to account people in local government, including the governor who authorised the event, as well as winning brownie points from the public by appearing to act tough.
"It is also," he said, "a way for the president to distance the MPLA from the church, which has been useful to the party but is now becoming more of a liability. The links had grown too big, too visible. They must be cut back to protect those involved."
While two-thirds of Angolans claim to be Catholic and the country has hosted two high-profile papal visits, from Jean Paul II in 1992 and Benedict XVI in 2009, Pentecostal churches like the IURD are growing in popularity and competition for followers is high.
The IURD claims to have an Angolan congregation of half a million and it competes directly with a number of other evangelical-style movements, including the home-grown Igreja de Nosso Senhor Jesus Cristo no Mundo (Our Lord Jesus Christ in the World Church), also known as the Tocoist Church, which last year unveiled a $30-million cathedral, believed to be one of Africa's largest.
Business and making money
Father Pio said people were turning to Pentecostal churches because of the high levels of poverty resulting from Angola's three-decade civil war.
"So many people are suffering here," he said. "They don't find quick fixes in the Catholic Church, so they go elsewhere and pay people who say they can help them. They are desperate and some go to many different churches at once."
Said the priest: "You could argue that people see the Catholic Church as old-fashioned and maybe we should improve our image, but to me, I don't see these new churches as being about social development or faith, but more about business and making money."
Similar allegations have been levelled at evangelical and Pentecostal churches across the African continent and in Brazil, where the IURD began in 1977, there have been several court probes into the church and the financial dealings of Bishop Macedo.
The Mail & Guardian was unable to reach anyone from the IURD in Angola.
None of the three Angolan cellphone numbers advertised on the church's website as 24-hour support lines was answered.
The church also posted no response to the government's suspension, just the regular links to articles about faith, healing and "misconceptions", where it stated that all financial contributions were voluntary.
Branches in London and Johannesburg said they were unable to comment.
Even if the church itself is staying silent and its extensive advertising is suddenly absent from television, radio and newspapers in Angola, it is stimulating plenty of lively discussion among Angolans and causing a headache for Dos Santos and the MPLA.