NSS: investigate charity accused of exorcism and conversion therapy

The National Secular Society has urged the regulator to investigate a Christian charity accused of ‘exorcising’ children, conducting ‘gay conversion therapy’ and exploitative financial practices.

In a letter to the Charity Commission, the NSS said the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG) appeared “unable or unwilling” to protect its members from harm.

The NSS also called for a review of the charitable purpose of ‘the advancement of religion’, which allows faith groups with harmful agendas to “exploit the charity sector”.

Exorcisms and conversion therapy

A new exposé by BBC Panorama released this week suggests under 18s at UCKG are being subjected to exorcism or ‘strong prayers’. Undercover filming appears to show a UCKG pastor lay his hands on the head of a 16 year old boy and say: “My God, let your fire burn the evil spirit that hides”.

In 2000 Victoria Climbié was murdered by her great-aunt, who believed she was possessed by evil spirits. Victoria had been taken to a UCKG branch, where a pastor prayed for her “spiritual problems”. As of 2003, UCKG’s website offered “strong prayer to destroy witchcraft, demon-possession”.

In the aftermath of the murder, UCKG reportedly changed it safeguarding policy to forbid under 18s being subjected to or present during exorcism. The new footage suggests UCKG is breaching its own policy.

Jahnine Davis, a member of the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel, said in response to the footage: “UCKG may want to ask themselves how much have they learnt [since the death of Victoria Climbié]”.

A former congregant also accuses UCKG of subjecting him to strong prayers every week for four years after he told the Church, aged 13, he was gay. He was allegedly informed his homosexuality was a result of demonic possession and shown a video in which a boy is told he would die from HIV without the Church’s help.

UCKG’s safeguarding policy states it will not carry out strong prayers on anyone who has “a history of mental illness”. Despite this, UCKG’s UK leader, bishop James Marques, is filmed stating depression “is a spiritual problem. Behind depression there is an evil spirit”.

He invites congregants who believe they have mental illnesses to place their hands on their heads and says: “In the name of Jesus Christ right now, manifest that curse that has been there, that black witchcraft that has worked in the life of this person.”

Marques further claims “epilepsy, in reality, is a spiritual problem”.

“Exploitative” financial practices

UCKG has churches all over the world, with the UK branch alone recording an income of over £15m in 2022.

Panorama spoke to 40 former Church members, almost all of whom said they personally experienced or witnessed others being manipulated or put under pressure to give money to the Church.

Pentecostal bishop Joe Aldred described the UCKG’s ‘prosperity gospel’ – the teaching that making financial donations will lead to divine favour – as “exploitative”.

Last year, the Guardian revealed how teenage UCKG members reportedly “sold clothes, phones or jewellery for donation money”. The Church also brings card-reader machines into some youth group sessions.

In 2020, the NSS raised concerns over its advertising for “holy oil”, which UCKG claims can be used for “the sick”, “the emotionally distressed” and “to anoint your work place for your career goals”.

NSS: “it is time for root and branch reform”

NSS campaigns officer Dr Alejandro Sanchez: “The allegations ranged against UCKG are of the utmost seriousness and raise grave concerns about the welfare of children attending its services. It is right that the Charity Commission now urgently investigate these accusations.

“There is ever-growing evidence that religious groups are misusing their charitable status to enable abusive practices, sow division and promote extremism.

“Instead of continuing with this whack-a-mole approach, it is time for root and branch reform: ‘the advancement of religion’ should be removed as a charitable purpose.”

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