Religious and political officials in Nazareth have demanded that the city cancel a planned visit next week by a Nigerian pastor and televangelist, and his plans to hold mass events at Mount Precipice.
Temitope Balogun Joshua, also known as T.B. Joshua, is famous for performing exorcism rituals in his native country, and is set to hold two events at the Christian site in Nazareth. His visit is supported by Nazareth Mayor Ali Sallam, but many in the city oppose it, some of them alleging that the pastor has ties to far-right Israelis.
Joshua is the founder of The Synagogue, Church of All Nations, a Christian organization that runs the Emmanuel TV television station from Lagos, which has a YouTube channel with 1.5 million subscribers. Arguably one of the most popular figures on television across Africa and Latin America, Joshua has 3.5 million followers on Facebook.
He has visited Israel in the past and written of forging a covenant with God to start his ministry, as well as hinting a couple of years ago of considering a relocation to Israel.
Thousands participate in his prayer sessions and exorcism rituals. Many video clips have been released on social media in recent days announcing the "rock-star" pastor’s visit.
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The planned visit has drawn criticism in Nazareth across party and ethnic lines. Church representatives have joined Islamic clerics in calls to cancel the events. Church officials meeting in Nazareth several days ago urged residents to boycott the event and clerics to avoid any mention of it in their sermons.
“We beg you not to play in the hands of those organizing this type of festival which is an affront to the principles of Christianity, and our national identity, and deals a blow to the social fabric of a city like Nazareth,” they wrote.
Church officials quoted text from the New Testament about how believers must be cautious about false messiahs who try to convince people they’re performing miracles. Most of the churches in Nazareth have signed their support for the statement – all but the Roman Catholic Church, which has avoided taking a clear stand.
In response to a query from Haaretz, Father Emil Shopany of the Catholic Church said there’s no reason not to host such a visit and that he, as opposed to others, will support the mayor’s position. He said Nazareth is an open city and that you cannot stop a religious man from abroad who decides to visit from holding prayers like thousands of pilgrims do.
But even members of Sallam’s coalition have criticized the visit. Haj Samir Sa’adi, a city councilor, has expressed his opposition to Joshua’s visit in a letter and has urged its cancellation. “The planned visit by the person called T.B. Joshua to the city of the annunciation is a challenge to the Christian faith in the city of Jesus’s boyhood and the Nazareth of ancient history, which does not need such a stain as this in which a false prophet exploits Mount Precipice to disseminate his lies,” he wrote.
Muslims from Nazareth and elsewhere have joined Sa’adi’s protests, among them the council of muftis, which has urged that the event be cancelled: “This is an event that would offend believers of all ethnic groups and religions and should be seen as a red line for faith in religious values. Therefore we call upon those who are behind the event to see to its immediate cancellation,” their statement said.
Among politicians, the event is also seen as volatile, and calls have been issued on social media to block the main roads to Mount Precipice. The Hadash and Youth for Change parties in the city council have demanded a meeting about the decision to invite the pastor to hold an event at a city installation against the wishes of the majority of residents.
“We have asked to take an in depth look at this issue, at why a city like Nazareth would receive such a person who is denied entry to many countries on grounds of criminal suspicions and given his links to the extreme right in Israel,” they wrote. “What's more, the man is known to have grown wealthy in a way that has raised many questions and therefore we view such a visit as an illegitimate step which contaminates the city and its historic heritage, and we absolutely reject the mayor’s claims that such an event would bring $1 million to the city and would see such a sum were it to actually materialize as an illegitimate contribution that would contaminate the city.”
The mayor has not responded to appeals by Haaretz for comment.
Police are meanwhile preparing for an expected crowd of 15,000 people at the event.
Joshua visited Israel two years ago, hosted by ZAKA founder Yehuda Meshi Zahav. Meshi Zahav has also visited Joshua in Nigeria. During his visit, Joshua met with Idan Greenbaum, the Jordan Valley regional council head. Channel 12 reported at the time that Joshua had said he plans to move his operations to Israel and that he said that six out of 10 foreigners visiting Nigeria attend exorcism rites at Joshua’s church. Greenbaum said a number of ideas were raised in their meeting to contribute to tourism in the Jordan Valley and Sea of Galilee area, but these ideas have not yet been carried out. But Greenbaum said that Joshua’s visit had received wide media coverage in his country and attracted tourism to Israel and the Jordan Valley.
A statement released ahead of Joshua’s visit says this would be his first event in the Middle East, that it would have a positive impact on the local economy, and that he has visited Israel many times and met with leading officials including Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, Communications Minister Ayoub Kara and Chief Rabbi David Lau.