The exorcists

It claims to offer protection from black magic and attracts millions of followers. But the murder of Anna Climbie - in one of Britain's worst ever cases of child abuse - has raised troubling questions about the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.

The Guardian/January 15, 2001
By Jeevan Vasagar

The Rainbow Theatre in north London can hold several thousand people, but only about 100 are gathered on this chilly Friday morning. Once it was one of Britain's top rock venues, resounding to the screams of teenage fans of the Beatles, David Bowie and the Osmonds. Now it belongs to the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, a global evangelical church which originated in Brazil in the 1970s; and assistant bishop Wellington Marcelo is pacing the stage bellowing gospel tunes, leading a "deliverance service" which offers protection from "voodoo, black magic and witchcraft."

Marcelo's pastors, cleancut young Brazilian men in neatly ironed shirts, march up and down the aisles like cheerleaders, singing along loudly. The congregation is ordered to form a circle before the stage, and we all hold hands. The preacher is in the middle.

"Are there any evil spirits tormenting you? Stopping you sleeping?" he cries. A young woman who is making the loudest noise is brought to the middle of the circle. The preacher is shouting now, asking Jesus to "send his fire - burn the evil spirits!" "Burn! Burn! Burn!" the worshippers shout in response, stamping their feet. Marcelo takes hold of the young woman, clasping her neck in what looks like a wrestling grip, and tells everyone a devil is inside her.

Marcelo shouts at the devil to leave her and she gets more hysterical, hitting him with her fists and making a growling sound. He calms her down and gives her a cup of water that he has blessed in the names of the Holy Trinity. She says that she is from the Congo, a mother of three and a care worker. In front of the now hushed congregation, she reveals that she attempted suicide that morning.

Marcelo asks her what her problem is. "Marriage problems," she says. "No," he says, "spiritual problems."

The care worker again says that she is going through problems with her husband. He disagrees. Like an impatient teacher with a slow child, he gets her to repeat that she has "spiritual problems," before letting her go back to her place in the circle.

The Universal Church has already got into trouble over its claim that evil spirits are the cause of people's woes. In 1997, the Advertising Standards Authority banned a church poster that said: "Constant headaches, depression, insomnia, fears, bad luck, strange diseases . . . These are just a few symptoms caused by demons."

But now the deliverance service has dragged the church into its darkest controversy yet. It was to one of these services that eight-year-old Anna Climbie, the little girl who died of hypothermia after being tied up in a bathtub in one of Britain's worst ever cases of child abuse, was to have been taken by her adoptive mother, Marie Kouao.

Kouao, who - along with her boyfriend, Carl Manning - was last Friday convicted of Anna's murder, had taken her to various churches, believing that the girl was possessed by demons. Throughout her trial at the Old Bailey, Kouao held on to a Bible.

Giving evidence, Alvero Lima, a 21-year-old assistant pastor of the Universal Church at Finsbury Park, told the jury about a conversation he had had with the girl in the week before her death. "[Anna] said she had a vision at night when the devil, in the form of a snake, told her to do these things [injure herself] and she was unable to stop. She said Satan made her do it. She said she hated me because I prayed for people. I told the mother I thought it was a spiritual problem. The Bible says there are evil spirits that leave people's bodies through fasting. I told her I and others would pray and fast all week."

Lima told Kouao that the congregation's efforts would culminate in exorcism of the devil from Anna at a deliverance service. The day before the scheduled service, Kouao brought Anna, who was then very cold and barely conscious, in for exorcism. A shocked Lima, to his credit, urged Kouao to take the child to hospital immediately. She died two days later, on February 25.

Kouao's barrister Michael Gledhill asked Lima: "What you were doing was playing with fire, wasn't it?" "No," he replied. Asked if he felt "at all responsible for this child's death," Lima again answered: "No."

The court case has turned the spotlight on the church's beliefs, and on the swath of society towards which its ministry is directed. At the deliverance service I attend, almost everyone is from an African or Afro-Caribbean background. Judging by their dress, the people do not seem wealthy. Another clue to the economic realities of these people's lives appears in the church's free newspaper, City News, where an advert declares: "If money is your problem, come to the richest person in the world - God."

The church seems to be a one-stop shop for every social ill: on Monday there is a service for financial and immigration problems ("bring your CV, passport etc"); Tuesday's speciality is health and Thursday's is family problems. On Saturday there is a prayer for prosperity - "bring your Bible and learn how to be prosperous."

All this is brought into sharp focus at the end of the service when the preacher turns to the subject of fundraising. Drug dealers have plenty of money, Marcelo says. New nightclubs are built every day. But there is never enough money for God's work. "We need offerings to build more churches," he says. "Is there anyone here who will give £50 or more?"

A woman goes to the front and writes out a cheque. An extraordinary Dutch auction commences as the assistant bishop asks: "Is there anyone who will give £30 or more? £20? Anyone who will take an envelope and come back next week?" He gives Bibles in exchange for the big donations. Then he asks for anything people have - even as little as 50p. No one seems to find this strange. This fundraising has proved hugely successful. The Universal Church, which claims to have 4,500 members regularly attending its services in London and the west midlands, raised £2m from donations at services in 1999, the last year for which figures are available.

On its website, the church discloses that it committed £569,000 to "direct charitable expenditure" in the financial year 1998-1999, and describes some of the work it carried out: an outreach service supplying shoes, blankets and Bibles to prisoners, and a lending library of taped services for the housebound elderly. Some £330,000 was spent on "fundraising and publicity", while management and administration costs were £246,000. At the time the records were filed, the church had a bank balance of £3.3m, including income saved from previous years.

Church spokeswoman Christoulla Boodram says the main objective of the church, as a charity, is to advance the Christian faith. "This is done by means of spreading the gospel through opening churches, literature, evangelism, radio programmes etc. The donations raised during church services are spent to pursue these objectives."

Last August, further evidence of the church's wealth and ambition emerged when a company part-owned by its Portuguese branch bought Liberty Radio, a London-based speech and music station, from Mohamed Al Fayed, the Harrods owner.

Observers of the church say that it seeks media investments both for commercial reasons and to obtain a platform. In Brazil, where it was founded by a former lottery shop assistant, Edir Macedo, in 1977, the Universal Church is far more than a spiritual organisation; it is a powerful political, financial and media force. It owns one of the main terrestrial television channels, about 20 other TV stations, 50 radio stations, a football team renamed Universal and a newspaper with a weekly circulation of 1.3m. It is estimated to have an annual turnover of £700m - which would put it in the top 100 Brazilian companies - and is the country's fastest-growing religion, with an estimated 8,000 churches and eight million followers.

The church also has 18 elected deputies affiliated to it in the Brazilian congress, giving it a political clout that outweighs its size. In the early 1990s Brazil's attorney general ordered an investigation, which is still in progress, into Macedo and the church over allegations of charlatanism.

The vast majority of Macedo's followers in Brazil are from the poorest communities. They, like the members of other churches in a country where there is no national health service, are attracted by the promise that true believers will be able to find the cure for any disease. Followers are expected to donate 10% of their earnings. Many priests who have left the fold have accused the church of only being interested in making money.

Boodram says: "In Brazil, the church is a very large organisation and recognised by its active role in helping the poorest and destitute in society. It seeks to play the same role in Britain." But the death of Anna Climbie has exposed the church's practices to unwelcome publicity that could hamper its ambitions in Britain. "We were very shocked and saddened by the suffering and subsequent death of little Anna," said Boodram. "This must be a terrible time for Anna's family and our thoughts and prayers go out to them, especially her parents in Ivory Coast."

She insisted that "the value of prayer in positively affecting a person's health has already been acknowledged by several medical studies," and added: "It is the practice in our church to always advise people to keep to their medical treatment and follow doctor's instructions." She also says that, as well as offering up prayers for prosperity, it refers seriously indebted people to debt advisory services.

But this defence is somewhat undercut by the preacher's insistence, at the service I attended, that the troubled young woman's problems were spiritual. It is also undermined by its free newspaper, the pages of which are filled with stories of prayer curing afflictions deemed incurable by conventional medicine.

For now, the Universal Church and its pastors will have to tread carefully with everyone they advise. After Anna's death, the accusation that they are "playing with fire" could yet come back to haunt them.

Note: Also see "Confusion as Climbie church cleared over exorcisms"

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