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Tuesday, 30 November, 1999, 15:32 GMT
Church of the 50,000 faithful
The Faith Tabernacle Evangelical churches are increasingly popular in Nigeria

By Barnaby Phillips

If the charismatic leader of a Nigerian evangelical sect is to be believed, the Guinness Book of Records will have to be re-written, following the recent opening of what is being described as the largest church in the world.

A feat of engineering amazement, and, what is more, done purely by Nigerians
Bishop David Oyedepo
The enormous structure, known as the Faith Tabernacle, towers over the sprawling suburbs of Nigeria's commercial capital, Lagos, and is designed to seat some 50,000 people.

A vast hexagonal building with a bright red metal roof, it only took one year to build - and many of the architects and engineers who worked on it gave their services for free.

The man behind the Faith Tabernacle is Bishop David Oyedepo, the founder and head of one of the fastest growing religious movements in the world: the pentecostal Winners' Chapel. In the past 15 years the movement it has spread right across Nigeria and beyond.

International following

David and Faith Oyedepo Bishop Oyedepo and his wife, Faith: Leaders of a growing movement
Bishop Oyedepo says he has Nigerian missionaries working in 30 African countries. But the extraordinary Faith Tabernacle is his biggest project yet.

He calls it a feat of "engineering amazement, and, what is more, done purely by Nigerians".

In fact, work is far from finished. Windows are being put in, the sound system is being improved, and the wooden pews have not yet been installed. When they are, Bishop Oyedepo says that the Faith Tabernacle will seat 50,400 worshippers.

Bishop Oyedepo has been sent by God to rescue our souls
Church member
It may not be the biggest church in the world in terms of size - that honour goes to the Roman Catholic basilica of Yamoussoukro in the nearby Ivory Coast - but it will be able to contain many more people than any other church.

With its plain concrete walls and corrugated iron roof, the Tabernacle is not a building of great beauty or subtlety, but its sheer size does give it a certain majesty.


Inside the Faith Tabernacle Plastic seats for now - the pews are coming later
Tens of thousands of people gathered for the opening ceremony. Bishop Oyedepo says that God works miracles through him, and the sick, the depressed and the bereaved lined up to receive his healing touch. Many worked themselves into a frenzy; in awe, not just of this extraordinary building, but of the man they call "Papa".

"Papa is everything we have," said one young man. "He has been sent by God to rescue our souls".

A middle-aged woman agreed. "He's definitely God-sent, he is truly wonderful."

The construction of the Faith Tabernacle is only the latest, although perhaps most dramatic, evidence of the extraordinary boom in evangelical churches in Nigeria.

The Faith Tabernacle Congregation members donated their skills and money to build the church
As living standards have collapsed in the past 15 years, and as schools and hospitals fall down, so bigger and bigger churches are still being built.

Critics of the new evangelical preachers say they are only taking advantage of people's desperation as life gets harder and harder. But Bishop Oyedepo argues that he is satisfying a spiritual longing which so many Nigerians evidently feel - and he is confident he will have no problem filling the great Faith Tabernacle.
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