Pentecostalism, prayer and conspiracy: how the pandemic has hit the continent.

By Charlotte Brill

Religion is at the core of African sociality, affecting the way people live their lives and engage with the state. It is central to the vast majority of Africans’ identities and for many it is not simply a faith but a reality which they earnestly embody and live by. 

Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity has boomed since the era of decolonisation. It is related but somewhat different to other Christian denominations in Africa emphasising direct and personal experience of the Holy Spirit. Starting in Nigeria, this ‘born-again’ religiosity has vastly expanded across the continent and into the mundane reaches of everyday life.  

Religions’ centrality to Africa’s social and political landscape puts religious leaders in a powerful position of influence and authority as a source of solace and guidance for congregants during this unprecedented time of COVID-19. 

Many African nations put restrictive measures in place as the coronavirus threat became increasingly imminent. This commonly meant the suspension or cancellation of religious-type gatherings and the closure of places of worship; an alarming prospect for many people. 

Not all religious leaders, including some of the most famous Pentecostal preachers, have followed government, at least not without force, nor are they keen to preach it, leaving their congregants confused and at risk. 

Fears over how the outbreak will unfold in Africa are rising, particularly for poor countries with weaker health systems and in densely populated urban areas. 

‘’Africa should wake up, my continent should wake up’’, said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director of the World Health Organisation (WHO), at a virtual press conference in March. 

Dr Tedros advises African countries to learn from the unprecedented acceleration of the fervent coronavirus in other countries, to ‘’prepare for the worse and prepare today.’’ 

WHO’s official recommendation to curb the spread of the virus is that ‘’mass gatherings should be avoided’’, Dr Tedros comments. 

Appreciative of the integral nature of religion to African tradition and of the critical role faith communities can play in the response to COVID-19, South African President met with religious leaders to ask for their support in reducing the virus’s spread. 

It is not unique that coronavirus restrictions have transformed ‘ordinary’ life across the globe, nonetheless the implications on peoples’ religiosity have been profound for Africa’s most devout faith communities. 

On the reactions on Northern Kenyan forum posts, James Drew, Course Convenor of Anthropology of Africa at University of Sussex said:

‘’There initially seemed to be strong resistance to the idea of closing from churches and their congregations. Some people still protest the closure, but most people are complying as the dangers of the virus become real.’’ 

In Nigeria, preaching wholehearted prayer and service to God throughout the outbreak, Popular Pentecostal Pastor Adeoboye, General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), addressed his millions of followers in a short video on Twitter:

‘’I want to assure you that there is no virus that will come near you because it is written that ‘He that dwelleth in the secret place of Most High shall abide under the shadow Almighty’’’ 

This announcement was made in February, when few cases where confirmed and the pandemic remained a relatively distant phenomenon for Africa.

As coronavirus’s grip tightens in Nigeria, however, megachurch auditoriums across the country have been shut and communal worship has moved online for the RCCG and most other churches. 

Conscious of their huge popularity and influence in Nigeria, and beyond, the RCCG have been using social media channels not only to preach scripture but to inform their followers on how to protect themselves from COVID-19

Through their Christian Social Responsibility (CSR) initiative, Pastor Adeboye has also donated tens-of-thousands of medical supplies, including essential PPE, to support frontline medical support.  

Some religious leaders have not been so quick to respond to the threat of coronavirus and comply with state protocol. 

Notably, Abuja Pastor of the Jesus Reign Family Church was arrested by Nigerian authorities after holding a Sunday service, despite government bans on mass congregations. 

Several conspiracy theories have also emerged.

World-famous TB Joshua, Pastor of Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN), ‘prophesied’ that the coronavirus pandemic will be defeated on the 27 March. 

‘’By the end of the month, whether we like it or not, no matter the medicine they might have produced to cure whatever it will do the way it came’’, he preached.

“What killed people in Wuhan China? It was not the virus, it was 5G’’, said Oyakhilome in a virtual sermon at the beginning of April.

When his ‘prophecy’ was proved false he found himself heavily mocked on the Internet. He has since defended himself in an interview on his own TV station, TV Emmanuel, saying:

‘’I am not a politician; I just have to give you the message as the spirit gave it to me.’’

A controversial conspiracy theory came from influential Nigerian Pastor Chris Oyakhilome, founder of LoveWorld Incorporated, who claimed that people were not being killed by coronavirus but by the installation of 5G networks:

‘’What killed people in Wuhan China? It was not the virus, it was 5G’’, said Oyakhilome in a virtual sermon at the beginning of April. 

He explained that the reason for lockdown in Nigerian towns, Aduja and Lagos, was not to halt the spread of coronavirus but to keep people inside so that 5G digital stations could be installed. 

‘’What is the reason for social distancing? It is not because of infection. That is the easiest way to prevent protests’’, he continued. 

Oyakhilome, has claimed  the popularisation of 5G technology is part of the Antichrist’s plan to facilitate a new world order with one-world government, one world religion and one world economy. 

Similar theories have also emerged in the UK with claims that either by suppressing the immune system or by direct transmission, 5G radio waves are somehow responsible for the coronavirus pandemic.

Such rumours and conspiracy have spread rapidly through social media networks and have led to a series of troubling incidents, including the arson of mobile phone masts in Birmingham and Merseyside. 

These claims have been widely condemned by scientists and branded ‘’The worst kind of fake news’’, by NHS England Medical Director Stephan Powis. 

Speaking on YouTube Channel, CountdowntoChrist, South African Pastor Mark Osbourne discusses how coronavirus, in the context of the increased frequency of economic hardships and tensions between nations, is a sign of the Second Coming and the End Times. 

‘’Jesus talking about the End Times is wars and rumours of wars and tribulation of believers… in midst of that… is this pestilence so I believe that the coronavirus…is part of this sign of the End Times’’, said Osbourne. 

He continues to say that we should not be fearful of the coronavirus because it is not the end of the world, but a sign of the End Times and we should have faith and hope that Jesus will come and rescue us. 

Prayer and devotion to God are preached across Christian faith communities in Africa as being vital to fighting COVID-19. 

It is important for so many African’s that they are able to maintain a spiritual connection with God and their faith community, especially for hope in the wake of crisis.

However, whether they preach that coronavirus is a test of faith, a sign of the End Times, or something else religious leaders must also  be consistent with public health guidelines and avoid spreading false information. 

At the heart of African sociality and in powerful positions of influence and authority these religious leaders have a moral responsibility to protect their congregants from exposure to this virus to avoid catastrophe across the continent. 

Photo Credits: Valeria Rodrigues

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