Televangelists told to verify miracles or pull the plug
CHRIS Oyakhilome is pastor of Christ Embassy - one of Nigeria's largest Pentecostal congregations. His church runs 30-minute slots on most major television channels daily. His programmes often show revival meetings in sold-out stadiums and halls where the lame walk, the blind receive sight and people hitherto crippled by terminal ailments leap for joy as they receive instantaneous healing.
For years, televangelists have been projecting wild claims into Nigerian homes, uncensored and unhindered.
But now a new law means all preachers making claims about miraculous healing are required to provide verifiable evidence that a miracle has taken place.
Last week the embattled televangelists were handed a brief respite as a Lagos High Court directed authorities not to begin enforcing the new rules pending a legal challenge by two Christians.
But if they lose the case, preachers face a tough test - they will be required to produce a doctor's report on the patient's condition before healing took place, as well as video evidence at the point of healing, and another doctor's report confirming that the earlier diagnosed condition was no longer present.
The furore began when the Nigeria Broadcasting Commission (NBC), which regulates broadcasting, announced that such programmes would not air unless they provided proof of miracles.
The ban has provoked a furious debate and polarised the country. Millions of Nigerians, especially in the south, identity themselves as Pentecostal Christians. It is largely from these ranks that the TV programmes draw their viewers.
But condemnation has also come from sources other than the churches directly affected - the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and many civil liberty groups suspect that the restrictions are meant to inhibit freedom of expression.
"It is wrong for NBC to assume they can protect us from the kind of information we hear, as if we are babies," says NLC President Adams Oshiomhole. "If the government succeeds in this trend, our democracy would be weaker."
The labour union accuses the regulatory authorities of trying to create a monopoly for government-owned broadcast organisations. The new rules and licensing fees require private stations to pay almost twice as much as the publicly owned ones.
The ban on miraculous claims affects the Christian organisations responsible for almost all such broadcasts on television. There are a few Muslim broadcasts but they hardly offer the spectacle of the miraculous cure.
One of the private stations that has been affected by the ban released a statement claiming that the commission's directive "robs Christians of their rights". This comment was criticised by the NBC as an attempt to whip up emotions.
NBC director-general Livinus Okpara told the media in Abuja last week that the ban on unverifiable miracles was only being enforced after extensive consultations and agreement with the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN) - an umbrella organisation of evangelical churches.
Top PFN officials have long been critical of the claims of some of the churches, and have sought to ostracise their leaders. One such church is the Synagogue Church for Nations - a sprawling affair on the outskirts of Lagos.
The church, headed by Pastor Temitope Joshua, is renowned for miraculous cures and has been attracting a steady stream of visitors from across the globe. Prominent recent visitors include Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini who visited the synagogue last year in the company of his wife, Bulile, to thank Joshua for healing his daughter, Princess Sibusile. She had been suffering from epilepsy.
Former Zambian President Frederick Chiluba was also a regular visitor before news of his legal troubles broke.
A reason for considerable bitterness among the private radio and television stations is the loss of the millions of naira in revenue critical to their survival.
For many television viewers, the weekend menu is often an unrelieved diet of one religious broadcast after another.
The preponderance of such programming is not a measure of religious zeal, but simply a case of the stations exploiting demand by the churches to make as much money as possible.
Such broadcasts aside, most of the private stations have few other avenues for earning income. Almost all owe staff salaries, in some cases for periods of between six months and one year.
Although the NBC has been careful to state that it has not banned religious broadcasts outright - only unverifiable claims about miracles - most of those affected do not see the difference.
Livingspring Chapel International Pastor Femi Emmanuel, whose church has a growing televangelism arm, said: "Miracle is the crux of the gospel. Gospel minus miracles becomes ridiculous. Christianity is the religion of signs and wonders.
"What has the federal government or NBC against televised miracles? Are they claiming to be in the dark about the mighty moves of God in the land? It is incredible that while the nation is grappling to overcome the sharia dilemma, another religious crisis is being provoked with the proposed sanction."
But not everyone is unhappy. Some have welcomed the commission's action to curtail what they consider to be the excesses of televangelists. Rasheed Ojikutu, in a reader's letter to a leading daily paper, summarises the feeling of such people.
"A man who had been blind from birth suddenly regains his vision and was instantly able to recognise the colour blue, in response to a question from the healing pastor about the colour of an item. Another man who had been crippled from birth, stood up miraculously in an overcrowded arena and ran wildly after his healer - proclaiming the grandeur of the most High.
"The fact is, even if vision is restored by a miracle, recognition of colour is not instinctive, neither can a human being who has never walked before, get up to run without toddling or lurching. These are examples of the conduct of televangelists, who daily take advantage of the desperation of television houses and sacrifice morality in return."
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