Pray Or Prey? Cameroon's Pentecostal Churches Face Crackdown
There's a saying in Cameroon that you can't drive for more than 100 yards without coming across a "revival church" or "new church" — terms used to refer to Pentecostal churches.
And even when you can't see them, you can probably hear them.
That's the case on a recent Sunday morning in Douala, the country's largest city, where the sound from the loudspeakers at Faith Ministry Banner church clashes with that of passing moto-taxis.
Dozens of worshipers stand under a blue overflow tent that extends from the church all the way to the sidewalk.
Inside the main room, a blind pastor, the Rev. George Nfor Asongyu, wipes the sweat from his forehead with a white towel and delivers the message to his congregation. A group of children naps near the fans.
But after 10 years, this could be the last Sunday service at the church.
"In a week's time from today, the government will close me down," Asongyu says.
"They say we pray too much, we disturb, we are breaking down marriages, we're destroying homes, we're exploiting people, which is not true," Asongyu says. "Even if there are churches that do that, it is not me. I know what call God has given me for this nation."
A Growing Pentecostal Church
Pentecostalism is now the fastest-growing Christian denomination in the world — and nowhere is it growing faster than in sub-Saharan Africa, home to nearly 45 percent of all Pentecostals.
In predominantly Christian Cameroon, there are more than 500 revival churches. Their rapid growth, as well as what the government views as questionable practices, has drawn attention. Last year, officials ordered the closure of nearly 100 churches that it claimed were criminal enterprises taking advantage of poor, desperate people.
"Cameroonians are faced with economic crisis, HIV/AIDS which cannot be cured, terminal illnesses," says Robert Akoko, who teaches sociology and anthropology at the University of Buea in southwest Cameroon. "And once they find themselves in such state, they see Pentecostal churches — spiritual healing, people being healed of HIV/AIDS."
It's not just faith healing that's drawing followers, says Akoko, who has studied Pentecostalism's growth in the country. The church also claims to offer protection from evil spirits.
That's what led Mary Sabi to join a Pentecostal church after more than a decade as a Catholic. She says she was being tormented by what she called a "spiritual husband."
"I couldn't sleep in the night, they always come and sex with me in the night, every night in dreams," Sabi recalls. "So it was so tormenting. I didn't know what to do."
One of her friends told her about Kings Deliverance Ministries, a Pentecostal church in Bamenda, in northwest Cameroon.
"So when I rushed there, that is how I got my deliverance," Sabi says.
The University of Buea's Akoko says that though Pentecostalism originated in America, it's been what he describes as "Africanized."
"It addresses problems faced by Africans. It addresses the beliefs of Africans as far as supernatural forces may be concerned," he says.
But it's the Pentecostal gospel of prosperity, Akoko says, that is the main draw for Cameroonians, many of whom live on less than $7 a day.
On a recent Sunday service at a Cameroonian branch of a Nigerian mega-church known as Winners' Chapel, hundreds of people listen to members testify about how God has blessed them with material riches and job promotions. One woman says she wondered why her car was more rundown than everyone else's. She says that after much prayer, God blessed her with a new car.
Are Churches Harmful?
Cameroon's minister of communication, Issa Tchiroma Bakary, says these revival churches not only disturb neighbors with loud services, they rip off vulnerable people. Some pastors, he says, engage in criminal practices such as extortion. The government decided to close them, he says, wherever their presence becomes harmful to society.
The only person who can approve a church in Cameroon is the president, Paul Biya. No church has been officially recognized since 2009, and the government began its crackdown last year.
Despite this, churches keep sprouting up.
So the government set up a commission to review the Pentecostal churches and identify ones to close. The head of the commission, the Rev. Ludovic Paulin Fotso, is a Pentecostal himself.
But many view the commission as the government's way of dividing the church. Fotso says that being between the state and the targeted churches is a sensitive task. Some fellow pastors look at him as if he were the police coming after them, but what he's actually trying to do, he says, is clean up and re-establish the church's leadership.
Meanwhile, the fate of churches like Asongyu's Ministry Faith Banner in Douala hangs in the balance. Like most Pentecostal churches in Cameroon, it is operating without legal permission under the government's lax regulations. (Fewer than 50 such churches are legally registered.)
In the end, police officers did visit Asongyu's church, but they seemed interested mostly in shaking him down. One of them asked the pastor for 100,000 Central African Francs — about $200 — which he didn't have. He says he managed to give them something as a token of appreciation, but it apparently wasn't enough.
"He was not pleased with the amount I gave him," Asongyu recalls. "I was trying to avoid involving myself in bribery and corruption."
The police took the money and said they were going to close the church anyway, citing Asongyu's blindness as the reason.
But more than a week later, the blind pastor is there, playing bass with the band during a rollicking service that feels more like a gospel dance party than a church.
Instead of closing the church, the government asked Asaongyu for more documents. The registration process is known to take decades. And even though his church is still open today, its future is uncertain.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Pentecostalism came to life in the early 1900s here in the U.S. It has since spread around the world faster than any other Christian denomination. Sub-Saharan Africa is now home to nearly 45 percent of all Pentecostals. Yet, last year, the government of the predominantly Christian country of Cameroon started closing down many Pentecostal churches that it saw as a threat to society. Andres Caballero has the story.
ANDRES CABALLERO, BYLINE: I'm in a taxi crossing Douala, Cameron's largest city. The saying here goes, you can't drive for more than 100 yards without coming across a revival church, a new church. And when you can't see them, you can probably hear them.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH SERVICE)
PASTOR GEORGE NFOR ASONGYU: I spend an eternity of poverty lost with him, in Jesus' name.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).
ASONGYU: (Singing) The hour has come.
CABALLERO: Ministry Faith Banner sits near a busy corner. It's Sunday morning, and the sound from the church's loudspeakers clash with that of passing moto-taxis. Dozens of worshippers stand under a blue overflow tent that extends all the way to the sidewalk. Inside the main room, Pastor George Nfor Asongyu, who's blind, wipes the sweat from his forehead with a white towel and delivers the message. People worship while a group of children take naps near the fans. But this could be the last Sunday service.
ASONGYU: In a week's time from today, the government will close me down. So it's actually a very, very terrible news, because I've existed for 10 years today.
CABALLERO: There are an estimated 500 Pentecostal churches in Cameroon. But in the last year, the government has closed nearly a hundred of them in three major cities. Most of these churches were not legally registered and were deemed a threat to society.
ASONGYU: They say we pray too much. We disturb. We are breaking down marriages. We destroy homes. We're exploiting people, which is not true. Even if there are churches that do that, it's not me, because I know what call God has given me for this nation.
CABALLERO: Police officers did visit his church, but they seemed interested mostly in shaking him down. One of them asked Pastor Asongyu for 100,000 Central African Francs. That's about $200, which he didn't have. He says he managed to give them something as a token of appreciation, but apparently it wasn't enough.
ASONGYU: He wasn't happy. He was not pleased with the amount I gave him to appreciate him because I was trying to avoid involving myself in bribery and corruption.
CABALLERO: They took the money and said they were going to close the church anyway, citing Asongyu's blindness.
ASONGYU: Just because the policeman wrote that I'm blind, I'm not qualified to be a pastor?
CABALLERO: Like most Pentecostal churches in Cameron, Asongyu's has been operating without legal permission under the government's lax regulations. The only person who can approve a church in Cameroon is the president, Paul Biya. But no church has been officially recognized since 2009. And in the meantime, churches keep sprouting. Last year, Biya's government ordered the crackdown on Pentecostal churches it claimed were criminal enterprises taking advantage of poor, desperate people.
MINISTER OF COMMUNICATION ISSA BAKARY: (French spoken).
CABALLERO: Minister of Communication Issa Bakary says these churches rip people off and take money from their disciples. He says they disturb neighbors with loud services day and night and that the government decided to close them wherever their presence becomes harmful enough to endanger society. So the government set up a commission to review the Pentecostal churches and identify those to close. The head of this commission is himself a Pentecostal, Rev. Ludovic Paulin Fotso.
CABALLERO: Rev. Fotso says that being between the state and the targeted churches is a sensitive task. Some fellow pastors look at him as if he were the police coming after them. But what he's actually trying to do is clean up and reestablish the church's leadership. And the commission has fueled suspicion. Rev. Patrice Metote (ph) is a Pentecostal working to create better training methods for pastors who want to start a church.
REV. PATRICE METOTE: Most pastors, they are not educated. Some have never been in Bible school, you see.
CABALLERO: He says the commission is the government's way of dividing the church.
METOTE: Oh, you see all these persecution you are facing. It's your pastor or your friend's pastor who come and give information against you. This is what they're saying. I say I will never believe that until I see.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH SERVICE)
CABALLERO: It's been over a week since Pastor Asongyu's church was supposed to be locked by military police. But instead, he sits on a chair and plays the bass with the band. This service feels more like a gospel marchosa party. Instead of locking his building, the government asked him for more documents. The registration process is known to take decades. And even though his church is still open today, its future remains uncertain. For NPR News, I'm Andres Caballero.
MARTIN: Andres Caballero is an NPR Above the Fray fellow, sponsored by the John Alexander Project. That's a group supporting young journalists to find stories like the one we just heard. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.