'Lady Apostle' or exploiter of children?

Nigerian says she's trying to 'set captives free,' but critics say she incites child killings

Houston Chronicle/March 10, 2012

As a former teenage witch, the popular but controversial Nigerian religious leader Helen Ukpabio claims she was betrothed to Satan then saved at 17 "to set the captives free by the gospel."

Her followers - from Nigeria to South Africa to Texas - say their "Lady Apostle" has done just that, while her critics charge she is a dangerous inciter of child abuse and killings.

Ukpabio, meanwhile, has quietly been coming to Houston during the past few years, leading revivals with about 300 local supporters of her Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministries. In promoting her visit here next week, a widely circulated flier in January promised the Pentecostal-style preacher would hold "marathon deliverance" sessions to cure such ills as bad dreams and witchcraft attacks.

Almost immediately, an international campaign against her exploded on the Internet: At issue, the matronly 43-year-old actress, filmmaker and author is one of Nigeria's most famous witch hunters. Ukpabio's books and DVDs, explaining how Satan possesses children, are so well-known that critics say her teachings are to blame for the torture, abandonment and deaths of thousands of children accused of witchcraft.

"Helen is notorious in Nigeria; she's notorious in Houston," said Anthony Obi Ogbo, a Nigerian-American and editor of the International Guardian, a predominantly black newspaper based in Houston. "But people here still go see her. … They believe some kids are witches. … They do it in obscurity because they know people will be alarmed."

Practice spreading

Ukpabio's Houston visit focuses public attention on the belief in child witchcraft, what experts say is a resurging and deeply concerning strain of African Pentecostalism. Though the practice of child exorcism is concentrated in Central and Western Africa, watchdog groups say it is spreading. Last week, a London couple from the Democratic Republic of Congo was convicted of the torture and killing of a 15-year-old relative they accused of witchcraft after he wet his bed.

In Houston, home to the second-largest Nigerian immigrant population in the world after London and at the forefront of African Pentecostalism's expansion in the U.S., preachers here said the practice is done, if at all, in secret.

But they acknowledged that a cornerstone of their faith is the concept of "deliverance," or allowing God to set you free from what is holding you back. In some versions of African Pentecostalism - a decentralized form of charismatic Christianity suffused with indigenous African beliefs in the supernatural - that can mean evil spirits. How pastors discern who is possessed and the manner of their deliverance vary widely.

"Some people take it to the extreme," said Pastor Solomon Akharamen from the Miracle Christian Fellowship Church in Stafford. "We don't support that, we don't practice that here, and it is not welcome."

Ukpabio did not return calls or emails. But her website warns "there is hardly any family without witchcraft." In her books, she writes, "If a child under the age of two screams in the night, cries, and is always feverish with deteriorating health, he or she is a servant of Satan." Her most well-known work, the graphic 1999 film "End of the Wicked," details how the devil captures the souls of children, who go on to devour their parents' flesh. Among the signs of possession: a lack of interest in school and "waywardness," also the breaking of plates.

Ukpabio has defended her films, which have made her tremendously wealthy, as works of fiction. But many of her followers see them as gospel.

Jacob Olupona, a Nigerian-American and scholar of indigenous African religions at Harvard University, called Ukpabio's teachings "completely unacceptable."

Pastors here speak out

Yet they persist.

In Houston, Obi Ogbo, the editor, said he knew of at least one local family who recently had paid Ukpabio's way to visit in their home. Other Houstonians, he said, also travel to Nigeria specifically to seek out the pastor's counsel.

For the two tiny Nigerian congregations who are hosting Ukpabio in Houston next week, the furor over her visit is unfair and malicious.

"It is an attack against the work of Jesus Christ," said Pastor Jonathan David, who leads Glorious Praise Ministries, a southwest Houston church he started two years ago with a congregation of about 50. Ukpabio's teachings are based solely on the Bible, he said, noting Jesus also cast out demons.

"Our ministry is just like any other," said Pastor Godwin Umotong, head of the Liberty Power Ministries Church in Sharpstown. "We sing songs, we read the Bible."

Exorcisms denied

During Ukpabio's last visit in 2011, she preached nearly overnight on a Saturday; so powerful was her sermon that people "just couldn't get enough," Umotong said.

Both pastors denied their churches practice child exorcism, calling it "demonic."

The belief in the power of demons and ancestral spirits is common in Nigeria and other Western African countries. Though that might seem outlandish to contemporary Western audiences, it's played a historical role in most major faiths, said Elias Bongmba, a professor at Rice University who specializes in African religions.

In and of themselves, such beliefs are not unusual, he said. What is troubling is when preachers claim they can detect demons - how do they determine who is possessed? Particularly alarming is the targeting of children and that the exorcism - sometimes violent, such as the pouring of hot oil in the eyes - is increasingly seen as a way to make money.

Ukpabio has said her exorcisms are not abusive and done for free. Her books, however, sell online for as much as $30 apiece.

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