- The Washington Times - Friday, August 11, 2006

KIEV — The Rev. Sunday Adelaja, a Nigerian preacher, understands why some in Ukraine are suspicious of him.

He’s black in a nation where racism is blatant, Pentecostal in a country considered the cradle of Russian Orthodoxy, and a foreigner whose lively, conversational preaching style — punctuated by pompom girls and electric keyboards — stands out from the subdued, centuries-old practices of Ukraine’s traditional faiths.

But the 39-year-old preacher laughs at critics who suspect black magic, hypnotism, brainwashing and even hallucinogenic drugs explain the hundreds of bopping, clapping white worshippers who fill his converted sports hall every Sunday.

By delivering a you-can-do-it message of hope and redemption — along with such direct help as free meals and addiction counseling — the Embassy of the Blessed Kingdom of God for All Nations church has ballooned from a ministry for society’s troubled into this ex-Soviet republic’s first true megachurch, claiming a membership of 25,000 people.

The church, informally called God’s Embassy, boasts a TV ministry and plans for a $15 million church stadium, and aims to reach 5 million people — 10 percent of Ukraine’s population — with its message of salvation.

Mr. Adelaja’s church has dispatched missionaries to Western Europe and the United States, and is eyeing China. Kiev’s new mayor, Leonid Chernovetsky, is a member. Many analysts credit the church’s get-out-the-vote efforts with his surprise win in March over a two-term incumbent and former heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko.

“I knew it would grow, I just never knew it would grow to this extent … in a way it is unexplainable,” said Mr. Adelaja, who came to the then-Soviet Union to study journalism but was inspired by a dream to establish a church.

His church is part of a Pentecostal movement that has flourished in Ukraine, which has been more politically and culturally open to new faiths than some of its other ex-Soviet neighbors, even as the dominant Orthodox faith has looked on warily.

Ukraine has long been an important religious center. Legend says the Apostle Andrew traveled the Kiev hills overlooking the Dnieper River, planting a cross and prophesying that someday, churches would be sprinkled over the landscape. About 900 years later, a Slavic prince marched the population into the water to baptize them into the Christian faith.

At Mr. Adelaja’s church, the mainly young congregants come early for the three-hour service to mill around tables set up in the back that offer everything from specialized training programs to legal counsel.

Men whose knuckles are stamped with prison tattoos brush shoulders with young Ukrainians such as Anna Chizhebska who came with her husband and two children looking for an anchor amid the increasing materialism of Ukrainian society.

“I think a lot of people are searching right now,” she said. Her husband, Serhiy, added: “Everyone is seeking peace, a sense of how to live.” Both pledged to return.

Despite his popularity, skeptics continue to question Mr. Adelaja.

He has been accused of using the church as a moneymaking venture and investigated by a medical commission to ensure that he wasn’t claiming to be performing medical miracles on stage.

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