LAGOS, Nigeria (Reuters) – Sitting on a bench in a back room of a Lagos church, Victoria Abraham held up a sign with her name, age and — in big, bright pink letters — the word AIDS.
Like her, a dozen other HIV-positive faithful came Sunday convinced that Prophet T.B. Joshua, a 41-year-old fundamentalist preacher with a cult-like following in Nigeria, would cure them.
In the main hall of the bronze-colored concrete building, 2,000 singing and dancing people watched the healing ceremony live on television screens and more kept streaming in.
On the same Sunday in Lagos, the biggest city in the African nation with the most Catholics, just 200 faithful came to midday mass at the Holy Cross Cathedral. The back rows were empty.
Reliable figures for Pentecostal churches are hard to get, but anecdotal evidence suggests they are growing faster than the Roman Catholic church on the world’s poorest continent.
“Sometimes, we admire these sects for their evangelical fervor,” Cameroon’s Cardinal Christian Tumi, and a potential pope candidate, told Jeune Afrique magazine. “If Catholics were as convinced, we could do great things.”
As the continent’s most populous nation, Nigeria has the most Roman Catholics in Africa — 19 million. But they live alongside another 42 million Christians and 55 million Muslims, according to the World Christian Database.
In sprawling Lagos, signs for evangelical churches with names such as “The Heavenly Ambassadors” or “Power Pentecostal Church” have sprung up on virtually every corner.
The most publicized event right now is the Lagos Healing Crusade by U.S. evangelist Benny Hinn at the end of the month. It pledges miracles, business breakthroughs and deliverances. Organizers say they expect 6 million people to attend.
“A church is made popular by advertisement, the charisma of the leader and the material benefits for its followers,” said Pastor Adetokunbo Olorunnimbe of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, whose leader is known by followers as “Daddy.”
The Catholic Church has become “too ritualistic and formal,” he said. “We are less uptight.”
The Redeemed Christian Church has branches in 50 countries and says that last year two parishes were set up on average every day, mostly in Nigeria — where it was founded and where it claims to have between 750,000 and 1.5 million followers.
And like Prophet Joshua’s Synagogue, Church of All Nations, its headquarters are in a teeming, grim Lagos shantytown.
The church plans to launch its own TV and radio network, has a maternity ward, schools, rehabilitation centers for drug addicts and prostitutes, and even an AIDS consultation center.
It acknowledges that not all HIV-infected believers can be healed, either for lack of faith or because their time is up.
Nigeria is the world’s eighth biggest oil exporter, but two thirds of its 130 million people live in desperate poverty, with no basic services or infrastructure to speak of.
To them, faith healers, pastors and self-proclaimed prophets promise instant salvation, and if not a better life, then at least a brief escape from their daily misery.
“I ride this bike every day and I know that as long as I go to the church nothing bad will happen to me,” said Amos, 18, a moped taxi driver in the traffic-clogged streets of Lagos.
Critics say most of the so-called mushroom churches are motivated purely by financial gain.
“The vast majority is nothing but greed,” said Reverend Father Gabriel Osu, communications director for the Catholic Church’s Lagos archdiocese, which he said has 50 parishes scattered in the city of 13 million but cannot meet a growing demand for priests.
By contrast, the Redeemed Church Web site lists more than 150 churches for Lagos alone.
“This is a lawless jungle. Anybody can wake up one morning and say ‘God has spoken to me, I am a pastor’,” said Osu. “People don’t go to them for faith, but to ask: how do I break out of poverty? And they tell people what they want to hear.”
Back at the synagogue, scores of people waited patiently for their turn to be healed. People with cancer, a family curse, business failure or “dull brain” were seeking divine help.
AIDS sufferer Abraham fell to her knees and began vomiting as a trainee healer yelled “Out! Out!” and “You are free!.”
Later, the 40-year-old confessed she became infected three years ago because of “fornication and adultery” and until now all remedies had failed. “I already feel much better,” she said, gyrating to prove her point.