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“The condition is only one: faith in El Cantare,” said Tomohiko Nakagawa, who heads the Ugandan branch of Happy Science.

While some Pentecostal clerics say Happy Science is far removed from conventional spirituality, some aspects of the religion from Japan can seem to have an affinity with charismatic Christianity.

Happy Science teaches that miracles do happen, that demons can be chased away, and that individual success and peace can be achieved in return for deep faith.

Officials said Happy Science has about 12 million members in more than 90 countries, including the U.S.

Miracles and investment

Robert Lutwama, a member of Happy Science in Uganda, said most of the converts were “disappointed in life and with other religions.”

“I found Happy Science quite an open door for my mind,” said Mariam Nantabaazi, a convert from Islam. “There’s unity here, which was lacking within the Muslim community.”

Uganda has a history of openness toward foreign proselytizers, notably in the 1980s, when a succession of Western television evangelists won millions of converts to Pentecostalism. AIDS was a major factor then, with the sick and affected hoping for miracles.

This time, some say, rampant poverty is driving the success of religions such as Happy Science.

“Happy Science tells people what they want to hear,” said Solomon Male, a Pentecostal cleric who is a fierce critic of Happy Science. “The people who join Okawa hope that he is going to give them money. He’s actually targeting people with real-life needs.”

Robby Muhumuza, a researcher who has written a book on false teachings and who attended Mr. Okawa’s lecture in Kampala, said Happy Science has manipulated Ugandans such as the students who thought Mr. Okawa’s lecture would be a seminar about the kind of science taught at school.

Mr. Muhumuza said the group’s missionary work - including the distribution of mosquito nets and the awarding of scholarships to rural schoolchildren - had proved effective in the push for converts.

“They see [Happy Science] as an investor from Japan,” he said of the converts. “Most of them are not serious followers, but they are hoping to get some benefits.”

Declining to discuss any criticisms, Happy Science officials said they are not in competition with other religions. Ikuko Kobayashi, a spokeswoman for Happy Science, said the religion strives for “harmony.”

Mr. Rycroft, the Africa head of Happy Science, said Mr. Okawa found Ugandans warm but lacking in self-confidence. Uganda, he said, has the potential to lead the way in Africa.

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