WSJ: Man With a Mission

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Alan Cullison. Wall Street Journal. New York, N.Y.: July 21, 2006. pg. A.1

Man With a Mission: A Nigerian Minister Sets Out to Save Kiev; Sunday Adelaja Promotes God And Democracy in a Land Suspicious of Evangelism

Pastor Sunday AdelajaKIEV, Ukraine -- When Sunday Adelaja started prayer meetings in his shabby apartment here 12 years ago, the only attendees were seven fellow Africans who, like him, were stranded by the collapse of the Soviet Union. "I was ready to give up," says Mr. Adelaja, who says God had told him to revive Christianity in the Slavic world.

So the Nigerian evangelist started trolling Kiev's drunk tanks and jails. Soon, drug addicts, petty crooks and recovering alcoholics with the shakes were sitting on his couch listening to him preach, he says. Then their family members joined, hoping that Mr. Adelaja could help loved ones mend their ways.

He moved Sunday services out of his apartment and into a rundown sports complex at the edge of this capital city. In the next decade of post-Soviet economic crumble, Mr. Adelaja's church grew. Today, he claims to run the largest congregation in Europe, with more than 25,000 members in Kiev alone.

"God has sent a black man to bring religion back to Russia and the Soviet Union," Mr. Adelaja, 39 years old, bellowed at a recent sermon. "This is hard here for many to accept."

Also tough to swallow for some is Mr. Adelaja's goal of bringing Western-style democracy to Eastern Europe. Mr. Adelaja's church has grown beyond its core clientele of substance abusers and petty criminals to include the mayor of Kiev and several members of Parliament, all of whom have allied themselves with Ukraine's West- leaning Orange Revolution.

Mr. Adelaja says his sermons have already helped topple governments in the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Kyrgyzstan as well as Ukraine. Rivals say he exaggerates his influence, but Moscow and its allies in the region are taking no chances: He has been booted out of Russia and Belarus and declared persona non grata in Armenia, he says.

The Kremlin has always been suspicious of evangelical churches. In Soviet times they were considered cults and possible puppets of Western governments. Now fears have been revived by Ukraine's Orange Revolution, which Moscow says the West wants to make an ideological springboard for Western-style revolt in Russia itself.

"There is no question they are a tool of the U.S.," says Alexander Krutov, a member of Russia's Parliament who would like to see new laws limiting the activities of interlopers. He calls Mr. Adelaja's church "an alien force that must be stopped."

Embassy of GodMr. Adelaja hardly fits the profile of many men of the cloth in Ukraine. Sunday services start with Ukrainian girls in red uniforms dancing and shaking pompoms on a smoky stage. Mr. Adelaja sports suits of neon blue, green and angelic white. His televised sermons are now carried to millions of viewers whom he has promised to help cure of ills ranging from diabetes and cancer to marital strife and pimples. The service winds down with confessionals from former drug addicts and a Eucharist of crackers and grape juice.

Born in Nigeria to Presbyterian parents, he arrived in the Belarussian capital of Minsk in 1986 on a scholarship from the Soviet Communist Party. Authorities hoped Mr. Adelaja would one day return to Africa and help spread communism. But after training as a TV journalist, he began to preach and was kicked out of Belarus, he says.

He turned up in Kiev, where he started a church in his home. The early preaching was a failure. Seven people arrived for his first meeting, fellow Africans whom he knew from school. They met twice a week for a few months, but nobody else came. "I began to realize I had a problem -- it was a national insult to hear a black man talk about God," he says.

That was when Mr. Adelaja decided to start searching Kiev's underbelly for converts. He started self-help groups for drug addicts, alcoholics, and churchgoers wanting to discuss family problems. He also made his church an incubator for small businesses. Borrowing the script of evangelical churches in America, he helped parishioners start up a print shop and a recording studio, and had some of the churchgoers who owned businesses conduct how-to seminars.
They were helped by some of Mr. Adelaja's own prolific writings, including "How to Grow Rich Without Tears." Today, Mr. Adelaja's "Embassy of the Blessed Kingdom of God for All Nations" claims hundreds of churches in 24 countries, including Russia, Belarus, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Mr. Adelaja is now planning a modernistic, $15 million megachapel in Kiev, a city traditionally graced by golden cupolas of Orthodox churches.

Rivals charge him with pocketing donations and inflating the number of churches by counting private prayer groups. Yurchuk Mitrofan, an archbishop with the Russian Orthodox Church in Kiev, says Western money helped Mr. Adelaja's expansion -- Mr. Adelaja says he has 22 churches in the U.S. alone. "They came in using all kinds of Western techniques that we hadn't used before," Mr. Mitrofan says.

The years after the Soviet collapse were an easy time to expand for sects that promised to fill a spiritual vacuum, Mr. Mitrofan says. Members of one large group, the White Brotherhood, were arrested en masse after their leader pledged to stage her own crucifixion outside Kiev's main cathedral.

Rivals demanded action against Mr. Adelaja's church, too, and, in 1997, the government dispatched a team of psychologists, doctors and folk practitioners to observe the services. They produced a certificate giving the church a clean bill of health, which Mr. Adelaja had framed and put on the wall of his office in the sports stadium.

Mr. Adelaja framed another certificate from Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who thanked him for supporting the Orange Revolution in 2004. The church erected a tent chapel on Independence Square and offered shelter to thousands of people who came to Kiev to protest elections that were rigged in favor of the Moscow-backed candidate for president.

Mr. Adelaja says Moscow was shocked anew in March when a member of his congregation was elected mayor of Kiev, a bastion of the Russian Orthodox Church since 998, when Prince Vladimir baptized Kiev's populace in the nearby Dnepr River.
The mayor, Leonid Chernovetsky, rose to prominence thanks in part to his work with the church: He coordinated the congregation's food- distribution program in Kiev's poorer neighborhoods.

The reaction to the new mayor in Kiev was especially harsh in Moscow, which looks down on Ukraine's revolutionary experiments. A prime-time Russian TV talk show invited Mr. Adelaja to appear in May, but when he arrived in Moscow for taping, border guards at the airport told him his visa had been revoked.

The program, "Let Them Talk," aired without him, and provided a forum for psychologists and lawmakers who accused him of zombifying his followers and illegally practicing medicine. Participants saw the earmarks of a Satanic cult. The show wrapped up ominously with a discussion of an unsolved satanic murder of a Moscow woman.

Mr. Adelaja says the bad publicity only helps draw new members. "It's too late for Russia to stop me," he says. "My message has already come to Russia, and there are a thousand people who think like me there."



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