KINSHASA – A rape accusation against a hugely popular revivalist preacher, gospel singer and televangelist has shone a light on the highly lucrative world of evangelical churches in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Pastor Moise Mbiye’s congregation in the capital Kinshasa has staunchly stood by his side during the allegation’s increasingly strange fallout, which has included rumors of a sex tape and a lawyer being shot.
Mbiye, 39, is the spiritual leader of the Cite Bethel “revival church,” a Protestant offshoot founded by his father, Emmanuel, where worshippers express their faith through song, mystical trances and, above all, cash donations.
His jubilant prayer songs are beloved in the Central African country — his video clip “Tango Naye” has been watched more than 21 million times on Youtube.
Mbiye asks the faithful to pay between $50 to $100 to see him perform live with his female choir. The price is comparable to concerts by top Congolese music stars like Koffi Olomide or Fally Ipupa.
The theme of his sermon on Sunday was “Transform yourself,” and at the end of the service he asked the hundreds of worshippers to give generously and contribute a tithe, or a tenth of their income.
But the fervent support of his followers at the sermon took on a greater resonance after serious allegations against the pastor.
One of his former followers and assistants, 20-year-old Eliane Bafeno, has filed a complaint against Mbiye for rape and also for abortion, which is banned under Congolese law.
The Kinshasa public prosecutor confirmed the abortion charge had been filed, as well another complaint against “obscene images harmful to the dignity of Ms Eliane Bafeno” being published on social media.
The lawyer who filed the case, Justin Lunanga, was shot and wounded on Jan. 26, according to his firm.
“This is unacceptable because we are in a democracy,” the country’s minister for human rights, Andre Lite, told the U.N.’s Okapi radio station in response to the shooting.
In another twist in the case, two former musicians of Mbiye’s band are in detention for “defamation prejudicial to Pastor Moses Mbiye,” according to the police.
The police said the pair were found “in possession of various videos compromising Pastor Mbiye,” but their lawyer denied the charge.
Mbiye was expected to appear in court on Monday, according to some of his followers who attended the Sunday service.
Mbiye made no direct reference to “the affair” in his sermon, apart from a choice interpretation of Biblical texts.
“Sometimes the Lord does not strike in the camp of your enemies because he has souls to save,” he said.
“I began my ministry in the wind and the storm, the devil has never stopped fighting me. And I grew up in the wind.”
Since the allegations surfaced, the preacher has found ardent advocates in his congregation. “Pastor Moses is innocent. These are fabrications,” said Caroline Misenga, a 28-year-old choral singer.
“Human justice will cleanse our pastor, then divine justice will strike these former assistants behind this plot inspired by hatred and jealousy,” said Gilbert Tshisungu, 52.
The vast Democratic Republic of Congo, whose population is largely deeply poor despite the country’s great mineral wealth, has several thousand evangelical churches.
The most widely known pastors and televangelists show off their riches during their preaching, with expensive clothes, gold watches, luxury cars and trips abroad. They travel in convoys of jeeps with police or soldiers for bodyguards.
During worship, the preachers auction the benediction of God, turning first to bless those who make the largest donations and working down to people who have only 500 Congolese francs ($0.30).
“They are merchants of hope and illusions, profiting from the naivety and poverty of the people,” said sociologist Leon Tsambu, a professor at the Catholic University of Congo.
“In so-called revivalist churches, the preachers are virtually all in the evangelical business, shamelessly riding on the misery of the population to enrich themselves,” he added.
“And these poor faithful find a community that pledges them solidarity in the event of misfortune.”