Catholics in Mumbai have been warned not to attend prayer meetings of the US-based preacher Benny Hinn when he visits India early next year.
Hinn's meetings have been scheduled for 13, 14 and 15 February at the Bandra-Kurla Complex. This worries the Catholic Church who fear that their faithful, many of whom watch his television programs, will flock to his meetings hoping to watch people healed from sicknesses.
Hinn, who claims to make contact with the dead, is a controversial figure in the west where he has been criticised for misinterpreting the Bible and prophesising the appearance of Jesus at his gatherings. (see box). His claims of miraculous healing are also treated with scepticism.
Last month, Ivan Cardinal Dias, archbishop of Mumbai issued a circular, called an official in church parlance, asking parish priests to give a 'timely warning' to their congregations not to attend Hinn's programmes when he visits the city.
Dias said that Hinn, despite his popularity and TV shows, is not accepted even by many of his own evangelist colleagues for his 'controversial doctrines, his misquotations and misinterpretations of the Bible, his false prophecies, his alleged visions of angels and contacts with the dead'.
The church fears that Catholics might flock to Hinn's independent churches. "In the west, there have been schisms because people have left the mainline churches and joined Hinn's ministries," said Father Pravin Fernandes, spokesperson for Dias.
According to priests, a fundamental feature of Hinn's sermons is what is called the 'prosperity gospel'. "I have been told that he promises only prosperity and success to his followers whereas we talk of both sufferings and happiness," says Father Larry Pereira, parish priest at Mount Carmel Church in Bandra.
"He never talks of suffering. He talks about physical healing without talking about the spiritual part. His combines histrionics, hysteria and emotionalism to lead gullible believers astray," says Fernandes.
But regardless of what religious leaders say about Hinn's version of Christianity, the man is supposed to have a large following in the city. "His following in Mumbai is so large that he may need a Brabourne stadium to accommodate the attendees," said one priest.
Clarence Gomes, a parishioner at St Peter's Church, Bandra says he knows a lot of people who watch Hinn on Miraclenet, an international television channel that churns out spiritual and religious programmes.
"He is more of a showman. A lot of people are enticed by his television show," says Gomes.
Judy Misquita, a resident of Orlem, Malad says that she watches Hinn's sermons on television but adds quickly that she does that only when she has time to spare. "We have got good preachers at our church. So I watch Hinn only occasionally and pick up from his sermons, things that are good for us," she says.
Her husband, Gerard admits that he finds some of the sermons given by regular priests boring. "But when Hinn talks, it sounds good and makes sense," he said.
But, in adherence to the archbishop's official that was read in their church, Our Lady of Lourdes, the Misquitas said that they had no intention of attending Hinn's programmes in Mumbai.
From the Protestant side of the faith, the Churches of North India have also chosen not to take part in the meetings. Bishop Baiju Gavit said, "Officially we're not taking part because we have theological and doctrinal differences with Benny Hinn, but we haven't laid down any restrictions for our people."
Meanwhile Gul Kriplani, the businessman involved in organising the meetings says, "We love the Catholics, there is nothing between the Catholics and us. They are probably not aware of what happens during the meetings.
"I've been trying to get an appointment with the archbishop. Perhaps they feel that Benny Hinn will steal away the Catholics from their church. See, the Catholics believe in Jesus and so do the Protestants. I'm a part of the All India Christian Council, which is also has Catholics in it. After all what is a church? It is a body of people, it is not denominations."
Hinn, now 50, was born in Israel of Greek father and Armenian mother. He founded the Orlando Christian Centre (now called World Outreach Centre) in Florida. He never trained for priesthood but has a large following in the west, especially in the US.
Why the Catholic Church has warned its folk against Hinn: