Evangelical churches are blooming in Angola, a traditionally devout Catholic nation, as its impoverished people turn to the promises of proselytising Protestantism. In a country of about 19 million people, Pope Benedict XVI drew a crowd of one million faithful when he visited in 2009 – and three in five Angolans continue to belong to the faith.
But a few years later, the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ on Earth claims at least 800,000 followers. Similarly, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, commonly known as IURD, counts 400,000 members.
These evangelical Protestant churches hope for the sort of decline in Catholicism witnessed in Latin America in recent decades. "Recent churches like the Pentecostals have had most success because they tie spiritual development with personal prosperity," said Jose Evaristo Abias, pastor and teacher at the Superior Theological Institute of Lubango in the south of the country.
Prosperity teachings offer a way out for the widely illiterate population, most of whom survive on less than US$2 a day, despite Angola's oil riches and strong economic growth in the past few years.
"People are looking for reasons to hope and evangelical churches offer new solutions with their dynamic sermons, joyful celebrations and obligation to contribute financially to develop the movement," said Siona Casimiro, editor of Catholic newspaper O Apostolado.
Gena Marcos, 40, a member of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God explained: "I cannot give some money to the church every month but I try to do it as often as possible, to thank the church and to contribute to its development, to buy some chairs, to buy some books."
Some observers say this encourages people to take control of their lives and be more active in their communities. Others brand it manipulation and indoctrination akin to sects, whose leaders are the main financial beneficiaries.
"Some people lost interest in the real world, in their family and neighbours – simply waiting for a better life after death. Others end [up] in a total poverty because of the church's drain on their resources," said Elias Isaac, from the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSIA), a non-government human rights group.
But the churches don't take the criticism lightly.
"Our detractors are people who oppose religion in general and who are prejudiced against the church," said Joao Antonio Bartolomeu, an IURD leader. "We call on them to respect freedom of religion as enshrined in the Angolan Constitution."
Originally from Brazil, the IURD movement last year drew over 150,000 people to a Luanda stadium during a New Year's Eve prayer meeting. The stadium was packed far beyond its capacity and the overcrowding led to a stampede, in which 16 people were killed. Following a commission of inquiry, all IURD activities were suspended for 60 days in early February - along with the activities of six other evangelical churches.
The congregations also counter the criticisms by saying that they do a lot within communities. "We have several services a week, courses and trainings, and we do social uplifting for children, the youth, and women in poor areas," said pastor Antonio Domingos Cabral, a director at the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ on Earth.
The movement last August inaugurated a giant cathedral, which can hold 20,000 people, in a densely populated suburb of the capital Luanda.
To increase their clout, churches form their own companies "notably in media conglomerations, which helps them create jobs, make money and remain independent", Abias said. IURD owns global television network TV Record, also known as Miramar, and has also branched out in the region’s other Portuguese-speaking country, Mozambique.
"Foreign movements maintain close relations with private companies of the same nationality that also operate in Angola. IURD has done this with [Brazilian construction company] Odebrecht, which increases their influence," said Elias Isaac. "There's a lot of work to do to register and control the practices of these churches to make sure they respect the country's laws.”
The Catholic Church, which risks appearing like a colonial relic that is unable to modernise, hopes the new upstarts will be shown to be false prophets. "These churches are attractive because they promise a lot, but they also disappoint people a lot," said Father Queiros Figueira, of the Viana diocese in Luanda.
"When their promises don't come true, people come back."ShareThis