“Our worst fear is that people are going to die.”
These unsettling words come from the Chairperson of the CRL Rights Commission, Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva, after a string of controversial incidents involving religious leaders – the most recent being the arrest of Pastor Timothy Omotoso on 22 charges of sexual offences or human trafficking. The CRL Rights Commission, a Chapter 9 institution, was established in 2014 to protect the cultural and religious rights of South Africans.
“Our gut feeling has always been, where there is so much power, there must be problems. We discovered that people truly believe that these are men of God, sent by God, and these men have so much control of people’s lives and of people’s minds,” says Mkhwanazi-Xaluva.
The CRL Bill is being reviewed in Parliament in June next month, and Thoko is lobbying to amend the CRL Rights Act of 2002, which will allow the CRL to set up a peer review mechanism for all religious leaders in South Africa.
“So that when they misbehave, they are disciplined like ordinary people. We are saying there should be a licensing process where before you become a pastor you are given the right to operate, like a doctor or a lawyer, so that if you misbehave, we can withdraw that right to operate.”
Omotoso, the Durban-based Nigerian pastor is accused of grooming young girls, recruited from his church, for sex. The commission is currently investigating these allegations. It was also instrumental in investigating the “Prophet of Doom” last year. The unorthodox preacher, Lethebo Rabalago, from Mount Zion General Assembly, was widely criticized when he claimed that spraying the household insecticide Doom on his congregation would heal them.
These unorthodox incidents, which include pastors forcing congregants to eat grass and live snakes as well as drink petrol, has sparked furore and left burning questions about the need to regulate churches in South Africa.
Omotoso was apprehended at the Port Elizabeth airport and was allegedly hiding in the ladies’ toilets at the time. According to the Hawks spokesperson, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Netshiunda, they had planned to arrest him in Bloemfontein during the Easter weekend, but Omotoso managed to elude being arrested.
Omotoso allegedly targeted young women that were members of his Jesus Dominion International Church. The pastor is accused of using recruiters to lure young women, who would then be taken to Durban, isolated from their families, and seduced under the pretext of spiritual mentoring.
I saw first-hand the level of cult-like behavior within the Jesus Dominion International Church. During one of the crusades in Durban a few months ago, the congregation fervently prayed for any enemies of their Pastor to die; a disturbing ritual that, according to our sources, is not uncommon. Perhaps this is not surprising when congregants bow down to Pastor Omotoso and literally worship him as a demigod. Former congregants tell us of how they would be expected to kneel when he calls them on their cellphones, even if they were in a public place.
Even more disturbing is the discovery during my investigation of a 50-seat bus parked outside the church. After the service, a bevy of beautiful young women get on the bus. Former congregants tell me that it is used to transport these young women to his luxury house in the affluent Umhlanga, near Durban.
The young women say they are initially approached by an older woman during or after the church service. Numbers are exchanged and they are put in direct contact with the church leader. The women say they are then invited by the recruiter to a house in Uhmlanga where they are introduced to the pastor and taken to his room where he asks them to join him on the bed and then proceeds to perform sexual acts on them.
Cheryl Pillay, a community activist and trauma counselor that often deals with trafficked victims, heads up the Hadassah Centre for Women in the south of Johannesburg. She says it is not uncommon for women to fall prey to sexual abuse by religious leaders.
“It’s trust and power, you automatically trust someone in a religious position – which gives that person a certain level of power over you because they can manipulate you because of the position of power that they hold… and that’s when the window of abuse may open. There is also the fear that if they say something, is anyone going to believe them because this is such a prominent person?”
If this power is allowed to continue, Mkhwanazi-Xaluva’s worst fear may soon be realized. – By Lee McCabe