Even as we go to press, the general overseer of the Christian Praying Assembly (CPA) in Ajao Estate, Lagos, Rev. Emeka King, who styles himself as the modern day Jesus, was still under police arrest on charges of setting five members of his church ablaze.
The reverend gentleman reportedly beat the victims with an iron rod, doused them with petrol and proceeded to set them on fire, all in a bit to compel them to confess to sexual immorality. Apparently to cover up the crime, Rev. King allegedly drove the “unrepentant sinners” to a nearby hospital and told the doctor there that they were victims of fire from an electricity generating-set.
Incidents like that of the CPA are no more strange to some Nigerian churches. It started when pentecostal churches of all manner of doctrinal stripes began to proliferate in inverse proportion to the dwindling economic fortunes of the country. These houses of mammon, operating as churches, began to preach the message of prosperity at the expense of the gospel of salvation. They were literally vending miracles on television.
In time, they began to make outlandish claims like Rev. King’s talk of spiritual inoculation against HIV/AIDs, cancer and all blood-related diseases. Before him, others like the now late “Jesu Oyingbo” had claimed to be the messiah. Even if all this can be overlooked as the product of religious eccentricity, certainly not so are the blatant criminality and gross abuse of human rights which it has spawned.
We have heard of a so-called prophetess cutting off the fingers of teenage girls on the claim that she saw them in a vision as the witches casting a spell of poverty on their own father who happens to be a member of her church. We have equally been fed with reports of religious communes where the flock is literally held in captivity, worked like slaves and routinely tortured to a point of self-abasement, with the obvious aim of stripping them of human dignity. In the end, members of the commune become a neuter, totally dependent on their religious master. In these torture chambers and ritualistic enclaves masquerading as churches, deaths have been known to occur.
In the circumstance, the over-riding question is this: what can the state do to protect the dignity and lives of its citizens who have ostensibly chosen, by their own volition, to be members of these sects?
In a secular state such as Nigeria, this is a delicate issue. All the same, we believe that while the state must constantly strive not to be seen to be interfering with the freedom of worship of its citizens as enshrined in the constitution, it must not at the same time abdicate its responsibility to protect those same citizens from themselves when the need arises.
It needs emphasising that freedom of worship is not a license either to the worshipper or the one conducting the worship. With burgeoning errant sects running the entire religious gamut in Nigeria, the state needs to be constantly alert to draw the line between religion and criminality. In the absence of vigilance, we may well be visited by Jim Jone’s Guyana tragedy of 1978 or David Koresh’s “lake of fire” of 1993 in Waco, Texas.
Perhaps this is the best time for government to re-visit its policy on commercialization of miracles on Nigerian radio and television. There is no doubt that some preachers are taking advantage of the genteel poverty, economic hardship, gullibility and ignorance of the broad masses of Nigerians to advertise claims to miraculous powers. The walls of many buildings, empty spaces and under-bridges in most urban cities in Nigeria are defaced with posters of miracle-working pastors and masters.
To protect the unwary, the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission (NBC) should continue to enforce its code which states that religious broadcasts making claims to miracles cannot be aired unless they are verifiable. Beyond all this, the police must investigate all the criminal accusations against Rev. King thoroughly, especially the ones on the five fire victims. If found culpable, he must be brought to justice to serve as a deterrent to others who use religion as a self-serving tool.