Jun 16, 2021

Searching for Psychic Ann: One Man's Fight Against a Shadowy Group of Grifters

Dallas Observer
JUNE 16, 2021

Elie was just looking for guidance. Last April, the California resident was trudging through a rough patch. The COVID-19 pandemic had closed down much of the country, he was reeling from a difficult breakup and he had recently been laid off twice. He soon came across an Instagram post that caught his eye. The account, @psychicuniverse1111, boasted of being a prominent spiritual advisor and psychic medium.

The posts advertised 10-minute readings for $10 and a flat $35 rate for a “full twin flame reading,” a process in which a supposed psychic communicates with a spirit. A twin flame, according to psychic lore, isn’t just a soul mate. The concept refers to the notion that your soul is split in two upon creation. The person with the other half is your twin flame, they say.

Elie decided to reach out, and when “Psychic Ann” replied, she told him she could speak that same evening. During that first conversation, Elie told Psychic Ann about his breakup and his ex-girlfriend.

The $35-rate was standard for a run-of-the-mill psychic reading, but the conversations between the two escalated quickly. Over the next few months, $35 turned into $90,000 and led to a tangled web of psychic networks and a desperate search for answers. Now, Elie and his lawyer, Paul Green, have filed a lawsuit against the psychic and a shadowy Texas network they say defrauded the man. (Elie agreed to an interview on the condition we don't publish his full name.)

Psychic Ann told Elie that getting him back on path to fixing his relationship would require a lot of work. She told him “negativity was the culprit.” She needed to perform an assortment of rituals and spiritual prayers, she insisted. The cost of these rituals and prayers was $5,500.

It was a steep price, but Psychic Ann struck him as a legit. He wondered if she might have real psychic abilities. After all, she knew that his ex-girlfriend had started dating someone else, a fact he had only recently learned from friends. "They just immediately reeled me in and played on my emotions," he told me. “I was completely consumed by this.”

Plus, she offered a money-back guarantee: Elie would receive a full refund if he wasn’t reunited with his ex within 10 days, she promised. Elie sent the money across multiple mobile payment apps. Two of those payments went to someone named Sonya Adams, according to the lawsuit.

"They just immediately reeled me in and played on my emotions." – Elie

The 10 days came and went, but Elie remained single. But instead of returning the $5,500, Psychic Ann and a business associate named Samantha told Elie they felt more work was required. Starting the next week, they would set up three daily “prayers” to try to remedy the situation.

The fraud and extortion only continued from that point onward, according to the lawsuit. Psychic Ann insisted that Elie needed to spend $25,000 on a “precious stone” from a church on which he should meditate. If he didn’t, she said, his mother would soon have terminal cancer. They also told Elie to not let anyone know about their supposed work to save his mother; if he didn't keep it a secret, the treatment wouldn't work. Fearing the worst, Elie rushed to a bank.

Psychic Ann and Samantha saw an opening to push for more, the lawsuit alleges. While he was on the way to the bank, they told him he actually needed two stones, a purchase that would run him $55,000. Sure, it was a lot of money, but it was the only way he could save his mother. On top of that, there would still be enough leftover energy to win back his girlfriend.

Ignoring the request also came with a price, they said. His ex-girlfriend would shack up with another man. Worse still, her new partner would abuse her and impregnate her against her will. Not to worry, they said: the $55,000 was only a deposit, and the sum would be returned to him once the work was completed. In the meantime, though, he needed to wire transfer the money to a bank account under the name of Dillion Evans.

"Every day they would fill me with this hope that I was going to get back with my girlfriend and that my family’s health was going to be OK and [would say], ‘We just need some more money so we can get another crystal so we can pray for this and pray for that,’ and they had me for way longer than I would’ve liked and they took everything I had," he told me.


Elie didn’t know it yet, but psychic scams are common, according to Amy Nofziger, director of fraud programs for the AARP, an interest group that focuses on issues facing people older than 50. Before the COVID-19 pandemic closed down much of the country and saw a rise in mental health issues, AARP would usually receive a single complaint about psychic scams every four months on their helpline. Now, they’re fielding one or two calls a week from people who have been swindled by self-described psychics.

Meanwhile, the FBI says more people are reporting these types of fraud cases to their Internet Complaint Center, or IC3. "Although IC3 does not see many of these types of complaints, there has been a slight uptick in reporting this year," the bureau said in a statement to AARP. "Most of the complainants reporting these scams have not been victimized, but are being vigilant in reporting potential frauds they see on social media networks or receive via email."

Complaints reported to AARP include a 54-year-old Canadian woman who gave a psychic $24,000 after being promised to be reconnected with a loved one. Another woman, a 72-year-old in Seattle, handed $20,000 over to a psychic who said they could gather information about a new relationship. The list goes on, one grift after another, the number of people conned piling up.

In recent years, I’ve received a handful of tips about similar stories in North Texas, but most times, the victims are too embarrassed to speak on the record. Sometimes, they still fear the psychic’s abilities and don’t want them to know they spoke with a reporter.

At one point, someone from New York reached out to me saying they’d been conned out of more than $2,800 by a psychic they believed was based in North Texas. They tried to cut ties, but the psychic would call from different numbers, harassing the client and threatening to contact family members to tell them they were hired to cast spells on them.


Back in California, Elie was already $60,000 in the hole. But Psychic Ann made him feel like a VIP. She gave him an exclusive phone line to contact her, made time to speak to him multiple times each day and even coached him on what to text his ex-girlfriend.

Eventually, Elie reconnected with his girlfriend. The lawsuit says it happened “through no doing of Psychic Ann,” but his relationship with the clairvoyant didn’t end there. Psychic Ann and her partners had nothing to offer by way of mending Elie’s love life, so they shifted the focus back to his mother’s impending illness. He sent another cashier’s check, but it was the last.

Elie became confident about his mother’s health. With everything fine and well, he wanted his deposits back.

That’s when Psychic Ann and the others started to go dark. Reaching them became more and more difficult. When he did manage it, they promised they were close to sealing the energy. They only needed a little more time.

According to the lawsuit, the deflections and delays and promises went on until July, when the reality hit Elie: He’d been scammed. “At that point I knew it was all bullshit," he said. "I was just in shock."


Bob Nygaard, a 59-year-old who lives in South Florida, has seen it all before. As a private investigator, he’s made a career out of hunting down fraudulent psychics. Over the years, he’s helped victims collect millions of dollars in damages.

One night in 2008, Nygaard headed to happy hour at a bar and grill in Boca Raton. It was the pickup spot, Nygaard told me, and there he was sitting across from two attractive, single women, a doctor and a nurse. He sipped a Bacardi and Coke, telling the women old war stories from his days working as a transit police officer in New York City.

One of his stories piqued the women’s interest. He told them about a band of five men known as the Parks Brothers in New York. The group had carried out a spate of home improvement scams targeting the elderly, along with other swindles across the country.

“I said that one of the types of crimes that I really took an interest in was con artists,” Nygaard recalled. “I really like to match wits with con artists and cause them to be arrested.”

The trio exchanged phone numbers and left the bar a little later that night. Not having struck gold at the pickup spot, Nygaard didn’t initially think much of his interaction with the women. Ten minutes after he left, though, his phone rang. It was the doctor. She asked if he could meet her at a gas station on the corner. “I didn’t know if she wanted to hook up or what the story was,” he said.

At the gas station, the doctor explained she wanted to tell him something she had been too embarrassed to mention in front of her coworker. A self-described psychic had ripped her off, taking $12,000. Even she couldn’t believe someone of her intelligence could fall for something like this, Nygaard said.

Nygaard closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. He thought on it, and then asked, “Was there a name? Marks?” Shocked, the doctor looked at him and said, “Yes it was. It’s Gina Marks.” She asked how he could have possibly known the name. Joking, Nygaard said, “I’m psychic.”

Nygaard’s work on the Marks case, which ultimately led to her arrest, garnered him a lot of attention from the press. It was as if floodgates had been opened, he said, and they haven’t closed since. His phone rings constantly and his email inbox is full of inquiries from people just like the doctor.

When the conned come to Nygaard, they generally feel just as helpless as they did when confronting their psychic.

Though some of the criminals he deals with are run-of-the-mill con artists, Nygaard said many are connected to a larger network of Romani-American organized crime. He stresses not everyone from this background is a fraudster. It is just a trend he has observed after years of his work.

“When people gave their money to Bernie Madoff, did he put a gun to their head? If they’re right, and I’m wrong, they ought to let him go.” – Bob Nygaard, private investigator

More often than not, the hardest part of pursuing cases like this is getting law enforcement and prosecutors to take them seriously. The judge in Nygaard’s Marks case said he questioned the mental makeup of the victims and that the crimes were unsophisticated and more like “a family tradition.”

“Therein lies the problem,” Nygaard said. “Law enforcement traditionally doesn’t view self-proclaimed physics and the criminal enterprises of which they are a part as being on the same par or level as traditional organized crime.”

The scammed are being financially destroyed, he said. Most police look at psychic fraud as a joke, turning away people who report it. Police who attempt to take on the cases are often met with reluctant prosecutors worried about ruining their track record. Victims are usually told no crime has been committed because they willingly gave away their money.

“When people gave their money to Bernie Madoff, did he put a gun to their head?” Nygaard asked. “If they’re right, and I’m wrong, they ought to let him go.”

Nygaard and victims of such fraud are still waiting for law enforcement to take them seriously. It's gotten better in some places, Nygaard said. In others, cops, prosecutors and judges are just as clueless as ever.


Elie may have been wise to the con artistry, but there was still a lot he didn’t know about Psychic Ann. For one, she went by many names: Dorothy Marks, Dorothy Leath, Kathleen Marks and Kathy Leath, to name a few. (It wasn’t the same Marks that Nygaard had worked on. Marks is a common name among such swindlers, as is Evans.)

That first night they spoke, though, Elie only knew that he was talking to Psychic Ann. Psychic Ann, whatever her real name, was also connected to multiple businesses.

As he dug further, Elie found what’s described in the lawsuit as an enterprise of named and unnamed individuals who, for years, committed, promoted and managed fraud and extortion.

According to the lawsuit, the enterprise has an identifiable structure, with each person fulfilling a specific role. It consisted of a referral network to funnel potential victims to different organizations and psychics, people who engage with the client to set up payments, and others who maintain the bank accounts under different names across multiple states.

In the lawsuit, Elie said he wants all of his money back. Under federal anti-racketeering laws, the lawsuit says, Elie is entitled to $270,000 and payment of his attorney’ fees.

I tried phoning the people named in the lawsuit. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t have a lot of luck.

The lawsuit alleges individuals named Dillion Evans, Rita Evans, Valerie Williams and Sonya Adams are involved. It includes the business entities Psychic Universe, Psychic Love Center, Twin Flame Universe, Best Texas Psychic Reader and Psychic Readings by Francine. Most of them trace back to a Dillion or Rita Evans.

Williams and Adams didn’t respond to requests for comment. When I first called Francine, who is actually Rita Evans, she hung up. The second time, she snapped, “Don’t bother me,” and then the phone line clicked dead. She didn’t have any publicly available email address, so I messaged her Facebook page. She never responded.

I rang a phone number listed for Dillion Evans, but he didn’t answer. I texted and asked to speak to him about the allegations. When he called, I told him about the lawsuit, how he was named in it, and how it alleges that he’s tied to psychic services in Texas also named in the lawsuit. He was quick to point out that he didn’t live in Texas. “So why would I be a psychic reader in Texas?” he asked.

I explained that a lot of this allegedly took place through social media and that he wouldn’t have to live in Texas to be involved. He replied, “So, what are you after here? You lookin’ for some money? A little news piece?”

It wasn’t money I was looking for, I told him. Rather, I wanted to give him the opportunity to comment on allegations. “You’re going to have to find a different Dillion Evans,” he said. “Sorry, bud.” Then, he hung up. I texted again, but he didn’t respond.

“There are lots of victims that have reached out to me,” Elie told me in one email. “It's a sad situation that needs to be put on the FBI's radar.”


Paul Green and his client have slammed up against similar roadblocks, the way Green tells it. “We’ve talked to folks who said ‘Well, look, if someone wants to go to a psychic, whether it’s a form of entertainment or it’s something they truly believe, they should be able to spend their money the way they want to.’ And I agree,” Green said. What makes it different here are the lies that were being told to entice Elie to fork over the cash.

Before taking on Elie’s case, Green had only heard vague stories about these types of fraud. He never took them all that seriously. “My initial thought had always been ‘Well, that was dumb. You shouldn’t have done that,’” Green said.

“My initial thought had always been ‘Well, that was dumb. You shouldn’t have done that.’” – Paul Green, lawyer

But Elie came to Green equipped with a trove of information. He'd hired private investigators that gave him access to extra resources, like criminal databases. When he approached Green, he already had an idea of what was going on and who was involved. “When we made contact with each other, he was ahead of the game,” Green said. “He was doing research himself. Being the victim, he quickly decided ‘I need to do something about this. I need to protect myself.’”

Green said, “On the surface, when you say ‘We’re suing an alleged psychic because they siphoned X amount of dollars,’ folks get a smile on their face like ‘Are you kidding?’ But when you dive deep into [the question] ‘Well, how did they obtain all that money?’ I think folks are quick to be more understanding.”

Part of what makes these cases so difficult, Green explained, is how common they have become. After all, there are an unknown number of networks like this out there; Elie had stumbled upon only one of them, but he and Green discovered more like them while researching for the lawsuit. They don’t have a full flow chart of who’s doing what, but they say they know that people have different, distinct roles in this network. “It is being operated like a business,” Green said. “The problem is the type of business that it is.”

It’s still too early to tell how far the network reaches, but they think the people they’re dealing with are based in Texas. Either way, they’re reaching across state lines for their victims through social media. “Social media knows no boundaries in terms of states, so they are trying to contact and defraud whomever they can,” Green explained. “It doesn’t matter where the individual is from.”

In the past, people who know the psychic and mediumship industry told me that psychics who won’t use their full, real names should raise a red flag. If a psychic uses a stage name, they generally have something to hide, Angela Lusk, a local psychic, said in 2018.

Another red flag, Lusk explained, was when an alleged psychic starts trying to extend the duration of a reading to coax more money out of a client. “If they give you a definitive price, for a definitive service, then you can guarantee to some degree that you’re dealing with someone who’s not trying to sucker you,” she said.

Named American Psychic and Medium Magazine’s Man of the Year in 2017, John Cappello said to watch out for psychics who ask clients to come back frequently for additional information. “If they keep trying to use you as a piggy bank, that’s wrong,” Cappello said.

As far as Elie’s lawsuit goes, the people named in the filing have submitted several motions to the courts that would see the complaint dismissed altogether. “It’s been painfully slow,” Green said. “We are at a position where essentially if we don’t start getting responses we are going to have to seek the court's help in ordering these individuals to start producing documents.“

In the meantime, Elie and Green are still just trying to piece it all together. “We feel as though we’ve been gaining puzzle pieces, which is nice,” Green said. “Now, it’s just a matter of figuring out where they go on the board.”

Elie wants justice, but he also wants to send a warning to others. “It was a very traumatic experience," he said. "I continue to feel the financial and emotional ramifications, and I want nothing more than to alert other people so other victims don’t fall into the same scam that I did."


Controversial Korean 'spiritual leader' fined $1.2 million for purchasing Northland properties without consent

Vita Molyneux
June 16, 2021

A controversial Korean spiritual leader and businessman has been fined $1.2 million for purchasing several Northland properties without the proper consent.

Seung Heun Lee was ordered to pay $1,246,625 plus $30,000 in legal costs after Justice Muir found he and his companies Double Pine Investment and Mediation Tour Limited did not follow the Overseas Investment Act rules.

Between 2014 and 2016, Lee bought seven Northland properties for $10.4 million to use for his meditation tour practice. 

At the time, he was not a New Zealand resident, although he is now. 

He claims because English is his second language, he did not completely understand the sale documents he signed and thus didn't know he needed consent for the purchase under the Overseas Investments Act.

Overseas Investment Office Group Manager Anna Wilson-Farrell said this is another example of the consequences overseas investors face for not seeking specialist advice before investing in New Zealand.

"It is a privilege to invest in New Zealand, and overseas investors will continue to be held to account if they do not comply with the rules."

Lee is the spiritual leader of the Brain and Body system (formerly known as Dahn Yoga) - an organisation that has been the focus of several critical reports and lawsuits overseas, including allegations of being a cult.

A Brain and Body spokesperson told NZME in 2018 these were incorrect and based on "frivolous claims".

"It's totally understandable that people should be suspicious of something they don't understand and it's easy to fall into the trap of labelling it as a cult," she said.

"The fact is, it's not a cult and the organisation has very few of the typical characteristics of a cult."


Jun 13, 2021

Ohio High School Football Coaches Fired After Being Accused of Forcing Hebrew Israelite Student-Athlete to Eat Pork

Zack Linly
The Root
June 5, 2021

Seven high school football coaches in Canton, Ohio, have lost their jobs after allegedly losing their damn minds and violating a Black student-athlete’s religious freedom by forcing him to eat pork. The student, whose name hasn’t been revealed, reportedly missed practice due to an injury and seven idiots who should never have been in charge of teenagers apparently thought it would be a good idea to punish him by making him eat a pepperoni pizza. Bruh, what the fuck?

The Washington Post reports that Marcus Wattley, the now-former head football coach at McKinley Senior High School, who is also Black, (*ancestors face-palm*) and a total of seven assistant coaches were originally placed on paid administrative leave after the May 24, incident while it was being investigated.

During a news conference Tuesday, Ed Gilbert, an attorney who represents the family of the student, who is a Hebrew Israelite, said that the family plans to file a lawsuit against the Canton City School District over the student’s First Amendment rights being violated.

From the Post:

Gilbert told The Washington Post on Wednesday that the 17-year-old, who has not been publicly identified, was verbally assaulted by the coaches and faced pressure from his peers to eat the pizza despite his religious beliefs.

Peter Pattakos, an attorney for Wattley, said that the player’s version of events were exaggerated and that the boy had the ability to leave at any time, the Repository reported.

Gilbert told The Post that the boy, who is reportedly 6-foot-5 and 280 pounds, injured his shoulder May 19 and that he skipped practice the next day. When the teenager showed up May 24 to a voluntary strength and conditioning session, Gilbert said, he was ordered to sit in a chair in the middle of the school’s gym. Then, Wattley, who has been at the school for two years, allegedly gave him an ultimatum: Eat the pepperoni pizza for skipping practice or his teammates would face additional drills.

The player’s refusal to eat the pizza also would mean that his position on the team could be jeopardized, the Repository reported.

He had the ability to leave at any time? Yeeeeaaah, nah. You don’t get to be an adult and authority figure coercing a teenager into eating something he doesn’t want to eat under threat of losing his spot on the team and then try to say he wasn’t forced because technically nobody duct-taped him to the chair.

According to Gilbert, the student told the coaches at least 10 times that he was forbidden to eat pork due to his religious beliefs and that even pork residue was a no-no for him. (Apparently, the coaches allowed him to pick as much of the pepperoni off as he could, but anyone who has ever eaten a pepperoni pizza knows that even if you successfully get them all off without ripping your slice to shreds, the pork residue will still be there in all its potency.)

The Post noted that “some Hebrew Israelites shun dairy, eggs and sugar ,” so it’s possible that by making the student eat any part of that pizza, the coaches were violating his religion. Also, religious freedom aside, you just don’t fuck with someone’s dietary restrictions like that, bruh. I’ve had friends who don’t eat pork become ill after accidentally ingesting it. How are you coaching athletes with no regard to their physical health? (It’s worth the reminder that a physical injury is reportedly what caused the student to miss practice in the first place.)

Anyway, according to The Canton Repository, Wattley was let go along with assistant coaches Cade Brodie, Joshua Grimsley, Romero Harris, Frank McLeod, Zachary Sweat and Tyler Thatcher. An eighth coach, Badre El Bardawil, was also involved in the incident but he was allowed to keep his job because investigators found that he hadn’t “performed in the same manner as the other coaches,” according to Superintendent Jeff Talbert.

I mean, this is just a hell of a stupid-ass way to lose your job. But good riddance—no student of any faith should have to put up with this.


Why tackling mental health needs to be prioritised

Pandemic has seen a big increase in the number of those who are mentally disturbed; they need counselling, psychiatric help

Rahul Singh
The Tribune 
June 13, 2021

The ailments connected with mental health have been with us for centuries. The pulls and pressures of modernisation have brought them to the fore in advanced countries. Fortunately, psychiatrists and psychologists are available there for treatment and counselling. But even in less developed nations, there are plenty of mentally-ill people, usually untreated and uncared for. In India, there are far too few trained psychiatrists. There is also a great reluctance to go to them because of the common perception that those who do so “must be mad”. The result is that many resort to so-called “godmen”, most of them charlatans. Some are far worse — outright criminals. Asaram Bapu and Gurmit Ram Rahim are just two who were caught and mercifully jailed. There are plenty of others, roaming free, fleecing their gullible followers.

However, these “godmen” do provide comfort and solace to a large number of Indians, and even to foreigners, that organised religions fail to do. Strange as it may sound, they are, in my reckoning, the psychiatrists of India, though they know nothing about psychiatry. They are canny enough to identify the insecurities of their followers and exploit those insecurities. Surprisingly, they attract high-profile celebrities as well, right up to prime ministers. Indira Gandhi was closely linked to Dhirendra Brahmachari, PV Narasimha Rao to Chandraswami, the Beatles had transcendental meditation guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (they got disillusioned with him later). The brilliant constitutional lawyer, Nani Palkhivala, was an ardent devotee of Sai Baba, as is the cricket great, Sunil Gavaskar.

Mental health issues are often genetic. Many families have a streak of mental instability that gets passed down through the generations. I had an eccentric great grandfather who liked writing letters to Queen Victoria. One of his grandsons (my uncle) was mentally challenged, and a great great granddaughter (my cousin’s daughter) died by suicide while studying for PhD at Oxford. The dividing line between eccentricity and mental illness is blurred, as is that between bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. One can merge into the other over time. Perhaps the most famous schizophrenic was John Nash, the American Nobel Prize winner on whom a wonderful film, ‘A Beautiful Mind’, was made some years ago. He was constantly haunted by imaginary demons.

Mood swings and depression are also common mental issues. Fame is no insulator of depression, as the confessions of Bollywood superstar Deepika Padukone have revealed. In the case of Parveen Babi, one of the great film beauties of her time, depression and schizophrenia turned into a more severe mental illness, bordering on insanity. But few would have thought that sportspersons could be similarly afflicted. Just the other day, Naomi Osaka, the 23-year-old Japanese tennis player who is the world’s richest female athlete, stunned the sports world by withdrawing from the French Open after winning her first round. She said she had been suffering from bouts of severe depression since 2018, the year she had won the US Open, defeating the legendary Serena Williams in the final.

In that match, the audience had vociferously rooted for Williams. That, along with the press conference that followed, had evidently traumatised Osaka. So much so, she dreaded being asked tough questions by the media. Which is why she announced that she would not address the traditional post-match press conference at the French Open (for which she was heavily fined). This led to her subsequent withdrawal from the tournament. There is now intense speculation over her participation in Wimbledon. Could we be witnessing the end of the tennis career of a great sporting talent, mainly due to her inability to handle mental issues? If she doesn’t want to face the media, surely she has the right to refuse. Since we are on tennis, one of the best players India has produced, Premjit Lal (he took the great Rod Laver to five sets at Wimbledon), after being quite normal, suddenly descended to the depths of despair in the last years of his life, leaving his many friends and admirers saddened and uncomprehending.

Indian TV is also being targeted by some in the social media for its coverage of the pandemic. Hundreds of bodies floating down the holy Ganga, hasty burials on the riverside, overflowing crematoria, lack of hospital beds, patients struggling to breathe from lack of oxygen — all this has been graphically, and perhaps sickeningly, shown on various channels. One Facebook post labelled such coverage as a “second pandemic”, this time a mental health one. Reporters and anchors were called “ghouls” who were “disrespecting the dead and violating the last sacred moments of the departed”. The post had more supporters than detractors. Clearly, most social media viewers don’t approve of the unsparing TV coverage of the pandemic, however honest it may be. Admittedly, these images could have troubled many, particularly the young and more sensitive. However, reality can sometimes be ugly and repulsive. Should one excise it completely, as if nothing has gone wrong? And yes, the pandemic has seen a big increase in the number of those who are mentally disturbed; they need counselling, perhaps psychiatric help. Students have had to take their classes online and stay indoors. Some cannot cope with a situation that they have never faced before. They need counselling which their parents are probably not equipped to give. Millions have suddenly lost their jobs and livelihood, while still in their prime. They, too, need some kind of help. There has been much talk about the inadequate health infrastructure in the country. That certainly needs much more investment and urgent overhaul. But let’s not forget mental health, which has been ignored and neglected for far too long.

— The writer is a veteran journalist


Navalny backers see cautionary tale in Russian raids on Jehovah's Witnesses

Analysis: members of religious group declared extremist in 2017 have faced arrests, surveillance and prison

Andrew Roth Moscow correspondent
The Guardian
June 10, 2021

The decision by a Moscow court to declare Alexei Navalny’s nationwide political organisation as “extremist” adds the group to a list associated with terrorist organisations such as al-Qaida and Islamic State.

But for a guide to how Russia could treat Navalny’s supporters, a better example is the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a non-violent religious group that has felt the full extent of Russia’s law on extremism.

For an estimated 175,000 Russian members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which Russia has decried as a dangerous cult, the daily reality has become the threat of mass arrests, video surveillance and long prison terms. Thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses have fled the country as a result.

In a note published on Wednesday, Navalny vowed a reorganisation to protect his supporters while preserving his movement’s ideals. “We are not a name, a piece of paper or an office,” he wrote. “We are a group of people who unite and organise Russian citizens who are against corruption, for honest courts and the equality of all before the law … We will change. Evolve. Adapt. But we will not retreat from our goals and ideas.”

Both organisations have suspended operations. In recent interviews, Navalny’s top aides pointed to the experience of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a cautionary tale of what could befall their own members if they did not.

“If we leave everything the way it is then without question there will be mass criminal cases against all the members of our headquarters,” said Leonid Volkov, a Navalny ally currently in Europe, in a recent interview. “After the Jehovah’s Witnesses, we’ve seen that they have the capacity and desire to do that.”

The Jehovah’s Witnesses were officially declared an extremist organisation in 2017, but regional authorities had begun raiding church meetings and arresting parishioners years earlier, using wiretaps, undercover agents and secret witnesses to collect evidence on the group.

In 2015, 16 members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the city of Taganrog, on the Sea of Azov, were charged with extremism after police infiltrated and filmed their prayer meetings. It was one of the first of recent mass trials against the group, which have become increasingly common as police arrest whole congregations during raids.

In 2019, seven members of the group in Surgut said they had been tortured using electric shocks and suffocation by members of the Investigative Committee, Russia’s main investigative agency. The US later banned two Russian investigators from Surgut from entering its territory for “gross human rights abuses”.

In a trial in the Urals city of Perm last month, police were said to have installed secret video cameras in a banya, or Russian bathhouse, that was being used by members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a baptismal.

What at first appeared to be local initiatives to crush certain chapters of the Jehovah’s Witnesses have grown into a nationwide crackdown, with prosecutions ongoing in more than 60 of Russia’s 85 federal subjects.

Since 2017, more than 100 Jehovah’s Witness have been sentenced for proselytising or meeting with prayer groups, including more than 25 who have been sentenced to prison, some for as long as seven and a half years.

Police have begun charging members of the group under Russia’s tough anti-extremism legislation, which carries a maximum 10-year sentence for organisers of groups deemed extremist, eight years for recruitment or financing, and six years for participation. Members of Navalny’s organisation could face similar penalties if convicted of continuing to work with his banned Anti-Corruption Foundation or regional headquarters.

Members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as old as 70 have been sentenced to prison. In a courtroom in February, 70-year-old Valentina Baranovskaya complained of raids on the houses of non-violent worshippers like herself, where FSB and national guard agents “rush into flats and houses, breaking open doors with a crowbar and sawing them out with a chainsaw, as well as breaking windows”, according to a partial transcript of her remarks reported by Forum 18.

She said she would support similar measures against violent groups, but asked: “Why persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses who, at the cost of their lives and freedom, do not take up arms?”

Baranovskaya was sentenced to two years in prison. Her son, Roman, was sentenced to six years in the same trial.


Vatican Forces lay Movements to Term Limit Those in Leadership Amid Scandals

June 11, 2021

On Friday, the Vatican started to implement term limits on their lay leaders and require internal elections to be held, the Associated Press reported.

Vatican leadership hoped the move would reduce scandals like the recent reports of several cases of lay movement founders allegedly sexually abusing their members and instances where founders refused to relinquish control over their communities.

An essay published in Friday's Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, said that applying term limits and other governance measures would prevent "an arbitrary, or even abusive," use of power used by authorities of the church.

The Vatican's laity office cracked down on the largely unregulated world of international associations of the faithful after some cases of abuses of authority and bad governance had been reported.

Canon lawyers and theologians said the crackdown was perhaps a sign that other lay movements, which have flourished over the last half-century but were largely left to govern themselves, might be similarly targeted. It follows the Vatican's recent decision to rewrite its sex abuse laws to also provide punishments for lay Catholics in positions of authority in the church who commit abuse, rather than to focus exclusively on clerics.

The Vatican's laity office oversees some 109 international lay associations, including the Neocatechumenal Way, Communion and Liberation, the Focolari Movement and the Sant'Egidio Community.

In the decree published Friday and an explanatory note approved by Pope Francis, the office said the governance regulations were necessary to discourage cults of personality from growing around the founders of these groups. The aim is to also reduce conflicts among members and encourage generational renewal within the communities.

The decree imposes a once-renewable five-year term on governing positions and requires that all members have a direct or indirect vote in community elections.

The laity office said the norms were needed because the absence of term limits had favored "personalization, centralization and expressions of self-referentiality which can easily cause serious violations of personal dignity and freedom and even real abuses."

Massimo Faggioli, a theologian and author of "The Rising Laity" and "A Brief History of the New Catholic Movements," said the Jesuit pope knows well that members of small religious communities can be manipulated by charismatic leaders.

"This is very big," Faggioli said of the new regulations. While the decree only applies to the groups that fall under the Vatican's laity office, "it sends a message to everyone else," he said.

Faggioli noted that under the papacy of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, lay religious movements were often seen as the future of the Catholic Church and were largely left to govern themselves as long as they remained orthodox and faithful to the Holy See.

But he said recent years had shown such communities can foster an unhealthy culture and "dynamics of power" surrounding their charismatic founders, with little recourse for members who might be harmed..

The Rev. Ulrich Rhode, dean of the canon law department at the Pontifical Gregorian University, said the new norms address the "perhaps excessive" freedom that lay religious movements have enjoyed to date. Romano said he hoped they would serve as a model for other lay associations that report to other Vatican departments.

Bishops and even the pope have intervened on a case-by-case basis in individual communities, sometimes drawing complaints of unfair or ideologically motivated crackdowns.


Column: Reports of QAnon's death aren't exaggerated

Los Angeles Times
JUNE 11, 2021

QAnon is hardly the first conspiracy theory to sweep the nation.

What QAnon calls the Deep State was once known as “the hidden government behind a government.”

Where QAnon says that John F. Kennedy Jr. faked his death, past fantasists of yore believed that John Belushi’s death by overdose was a government hit.

And when QAnon followers spin yarns about a phantom cabal of satanic cannibals and sex traffickers, twisted liars of the 1850s and 1860s warned of satanic bankers and Catholics who also drank blood and abused children.

That’s why QAnon, who made a messiah out of former President Trump, was always bound to lose steam. It will follow the arc of furious, loopy-loo American conspiracy theories that have existed since before the Civil War. Cults like QAnon burn bright, and they fade fast.

QAnon’s demise, in fact, is well underway. Its leader, Q, a figure from the internet’s dark side, is now widely suspected to be the creation of Jim and Ron Watkins. The Watkins men are a seedy father-son duo in Asia who serve up pornography and hate speech online.

If the Watkins hypothesis is true, it means that Q is not exactly the patriotic, principled avenger crusading against sex trafficking that his followers have put their faith in.

Q has also been silent for seven months. The cryptic things Q used to post, tone poems that served as Rorschach tests for his followers’ projections, have stopped appearing. They no longer headline the rave at 8kun, the horrifying online image board, administered by Ron Watkins, where they first appeared.

QAnon’s prophecies have been abysmal failures. Early on, Q claimed “the storm” would take place on Nov. 3, 2017. Nothing extraordinary happened. He also repeatedly prophesied that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) would quit the U.S. Senate. McCain served until he died in 2018.

Q insisted that President Trump’s enemies would commit mass suicide on Feb. 10, 2018. Nope. Finally “the storm” was again prophesied, this time for President Biden’s inauguration day, on Jan. 20. Zip.

That’s when Ron Watkins, who denies playing a part in the Q phenomenon, posted this to Telegram: “We gave it our all. Now we need to keep our chins up and go back to our lives as best we are able.”

Daniel J. Jones, president of Advance Democracy, an organization that tracks extremist groups online, summed up the late January situation this way: “After years of waiting for the ‘Great Awakening,’ QAnon adherents seemed genuinely shocked to see President Biden successfully inaugurated. A significant percentage online are writing that they are now done with the QAnon.”

Of course, the one historic event that QAnon did help catalyze didn’t end well for the participants. On Jan. 6, Trump zealots, some in Q shirts or waving Q flags, stormed the U.S. Capitol.

As of last Friday, according to the Justice Department, some 465 people have been arrested for that attack. A court filing indicated that the government expects to charge nearly 100 more.

Many defendants intend to claim they were brainwashed. Albert Watkins (no relation to Ron and Jim), the lawyer for the pelt-wearing insurrectionist Jacob Chansley, aka the QAnon Shaman, says his client fell into the clutches of a cult.

“He is not crazy,” Watkins told the Associated Press last month. “The people who fell in love with [cult leader] Jim Jones and went down to Guyana, they had husbands and wives and lives. And then they drank the Kool-Aid.”

QAnoners who are still on board aren’t sure what any of it means anymore. Some have stopped talking about Trump and now just preach antisemitism. Others urge supporters to take on debt because somehow the future belongs to cryptocurrency and the Iraqi dinar. Orthodox Q types, whose numbers are diminishing, are presumably still waiting for tribunals for Trump’s enemies and, of course, the storm.

But then late last month, pro-Trump lawyer Sidney Powell, one possible heir apparent to the Q empire, dismissed some of the most popular Q memes at a Dallas Q convention. “There are no military tribunals that’s magically going to solve this problem for us,” she said.

And though Q used to urge followers to “trust the plan,” Powell announced, “I don’t have any evidence that there’s some grand underlying plan.”

With Jan. 6 still fresh in our minds, and with the cultural ascendancy of next-gen conspiracists such as Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), it’s easy to miss evidence that QAnon’s power is waning.

It’s a blindness akin to believing in Trump’s inescapable indomitability, even though he lost the White House and has been de-platformed.

After a grueling period of pandemic and political violence, citizens experience societal trauma. We become hypervigilant. And we’re liable to panic about the wrong things.

Believe it: QAnon’s coherence, allure and leadership are over. Trump has retired. Many QAnoners are now behind bars.

Of course, that’s not the end of dangers posed by fanatical groups. It might not be QAnon next time, but extremist ideologies and paranoid fantasies will always captivate the dispossessed.

And if we’re still battling a cult that’s defeated, we’re in strategic trouble. Not only will we have failed to learn from Q’s unraveling, but we also won’t be able to recognize the next catastrophe, let alone prevent it.

Virginia Heffernan
Virginia Heffernan is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times’ Opinion section. After receiving her doctorate in English and American Studies from Harvard, Heffernan began her journalism career as a fact-checker at the New Yorker. She’s worked as a senior editor at Harper’s, a TV critic for Slate and a columnist for the New York Times Magazine, among other gigs. She is the author of “Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art,” and she hosts the Trumpcast podcast for Slate.


Scientology should lose charitable status over its attacks on mental health: McGorry

Ben Schneiders
Sydney Morning Herald
June 13, 2021

Two of Australia’s top mental health advocates and researchers have described Scientology’s anti-psychiatry campaigning as dangerous and harmful to the community and said the church should be stripped of its tax-free status.

Professor Patrick McGorry, a former Australian of the Year, and Professor Ian Hickie, a co-director of the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind centre, both say they have been harassed over many years by Scientologists and Scientology-linked front groups at conferences in

A key tenet of the Church of Scientology, which was founded in the 1950s by former science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, is its hostility towards psychiatry. The church is strongly opposed to medication for mental health treatments and has campaigned against it for decades, including harassing people who support scientific-based mental health approaches.

“This is social harm,” Professor Hickie said. “Over generations psychiatry has been the target of untruths … this has been a major problem, particularly in the child and youth areas of tackling childhood things like attention deficit disorder, neurodevelopmental disorders.”

Under the 2013 Charities Act religions enjoy tax-free status because they are presumed to be for the public benefit, but if there is evidence they do harm, those benefits need to be weighed against the possible detriment.

Scientology objected to that requirement during consultation over the act and in a 2011 public submission said it could allow “intolerable religious discrimination and bigotry”.

Labor and the Greens have supported calls for an investigation by the charities regulator and depending on that result a parliamentary inquiry into Scientology’s tax-free status.

Professor Hickie said anyone who has been prominently involved in psychiatry has been subject to harassment and personal attacks by Scientologists and related groups which include the Citizens Commission on Human Rights.

Professor McGorry said Scientology’s methods and approach contributed to negative attitudes towards treatment for psychiatric conditions. He said he had been the target of “defamatory” pamphlets that accused him of drugging children, “despite my long term efforts to build holistic models of care which are on the public record”.

“In my personal opinion it should be withdrawn,” Professor McGorry said of Scientology’s tax free status. “I simply cannot see how Scientology can be regarded as a religion.”

A Church of Scientology Australia spokeswoman, Vicki Dunstan, said in a statement it was “proud” of its “human rights advocacy work” including that of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights. She accused The Sunday Age and The Sun-Herald of spreading “false propaganda” and “a false narrative” about its charitable and tax exempt status and said all its funds were used to “further our religious and humanitarian mission”.

“You are once again flat-out wrong in every aspect of your inquiry,” she wrote.

The call to revoke Scientology’s charitable status comes after The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald revealed the church had shifted tens of millions of dollars into Australia from offshore and had made $65.4 million in tax-free net profits in Australia since 2013. That was despite having fewer than 1700 adherents in Australia, down by one-third in a decade.

Professor McGorry, the executive director of youth mental health research centre, Orygen, said Scientology’s interventions came as an anti-psychiatry perspective was still influential in Australia and had “been given a fair bit of momentum by the serious underfunding of mental health care by governments”.

He said a number of people had often received poor treatment that could be harmful and coercive from psychiatrists, which had produced a “cohort of activist consumers”.

“The mental health system has shrunk, collapsed and work practices inevitably became highly degraded. These experiences produced a cohort of activist consumers, and they admirably campaigned for a better system,” he said.

“However, some of these people ultimately failed to see that the (poor and underfunded) conditions themselves were the reason for the harm and neglect, and they blamed the clinicians and doctors who themselves have been victims of the neglect as well.”

Professor McGorry said clinicians had been exposed to “moral injury” through having to turn people away in severe distress and to struggle to care for “acutely ill people in extreme states of mind and behaviour.”

He said a balanced view was “urgently needed” and that, while it was on the fringes, Scientology’s activism had been unhelpful.

From 2019 Victoria held a royal commission into its mental health system and last month the government said it would fund a significant boost in mental health spending through a levy on big business.

Professor Hickie alleged some independent voices in mental health debates appear to “share in common, the language and the focus of the Church of Scientology” without disclosing links. Professor McGorry made similar claims.

Professor Hickie said Scientology was a “fringe group” in Australia, but was powerful in the United States. While academic or informed debates about approaches to treatment and the history of psychiatry were important, that needed to be distinguished from front groups for Scientology that put out a “series of untruths worldwide”.

Scientology’s Ms Dunstan attacked the work of Professor McGorry and Professor Hickie.

“Psychiatric mistreatment continues to this day and Australia, unfortunately, has an appalling legacy of abusive mental health practices,” she said.

Ms Dunstan said a prominent psychiatrist had played an important role in a 1960s government inquiry into Scientology in Victoria which resulted in it being banned.

“Indeed, it is absurd that you ask the church about harassing psychiatrists when it is a well-known historical fact that harassment is exactly what the church in Australia suffered at the hands of psychiatrists.”

At a recent Senate estimates hearing, the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits commissioner, Dr Gary Johns, was questioned about whether Scientology should be entitled to its tax free status.

Greens Senator Nick McKim asked whether Dr Johns was aware of Scientology’s Fair Game policy of aggressively targeting critics and of using private investigators to follow former adherents and others.

Dr Johns said he was not aware of Fair Game and said, in response to other questions, that he could not comment if the regulator was investigating Scientology “because of (legal) secrecy provisions for investigations or compliance matters.”

In much of the world, Scientology is not afforded tax-free status or classed as a religion but in Australia it has generous regulatory protections after a landmark High Court decision in 1983.

Do you know more? Send a confidential message to benschneiders@protonmail.com


Meeting The Beatles In India - Trailer

Paul Saltzman
August 16, 2020

Filmmaker Paul Saltzman retraces his journey of 50 years ago when he spent a life-changing time with the Beatles at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's ashram on the banks of the Ganges River. In 1968, he discovered his own soul, learned meditation, which changed his life, and hung out with John, Paul, George and Ringo. Fifty years later, he finds "Bungalow Bill" in Hawaii; connects with David Lynch about his own inner journey; as well as preeminent Beatles historian, Mark Lewisohn; Academy Award nominated film composer, Laurence Rosenthal; and Pattie and Jenny Boyd. And much of this is due to Saltzman's own daughter, Devyani, reminding him that he had put away and forgotten these remarkably intimate photographs of that time in 1968.

Narration: Morgan Freeman

Jun 11, 2021

Tears, Disbelief As Nigerians Mourn TB Joshua

June 6, 2021

Prophet TB Joshua’s Last Outing Before His Sudden Death

Sahara TV
Jun 6, 2021

The Founder of the Synagogue Church of All Nations, Temitope Joshua, better known as Prophet TB Joshua, died on the way to the hospital, SaharaReporters has gathered.

"He conducted a service yesterday evening. He had been sick for two days. He decided to go to the hospital after the evening programme. He died on the way to the hospital," a source told Saharareporters.

The church and his family have not officially announced his death. He was 57. Joshua was born on June 12, 1963, in Arigidi, Akoko axis of Ondo State. Plans were underway for his 58th birthday, which is six days away.

WATCH: TB Joshua Gave Magaya A Task Before He died

Nigerian televangelist Temitope Balogun Joshua better known as TB Joshua reportedly gave Zimbabwe preacher Walter Magaya the task of buying two elephants, a zebra and a giraffe as he wanted to open a zoo.

TB Joshua died before Magaya could send him the animals.

Magaya said he bought the animals but could not get clearance from the Nigerian immigration department to travel to the Western African country. Watch the video below for more.


FLASHBACK: How I Was Convicted Of Drug-Related Offences In 1996 — TB Joshua

The prophet, who is now dead, in a 2019 documentary, showed his church members how he was prosecuted for an offence he was innocent of, but survived.

June 08, 2021

Popular televangelist, Temitope Balogun Joshua, was arrested by officers of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency in 1996.

The prophet, who is now dead, in a 2019 documentary, showed his church members how he was prosecuted for an offence he was innocent of, but survived.

Before the video was displayed, Joshua said, “In the college of God, however brilliant you may be, you will not be given double promotion – you must take every course because each course serves a purpose.

“In the University of God, no matter how brilliant you may be, you will not be given a double promotion, you will take every course because each course serves a purpose.”

The video showing TB Joshua in a cell in 1996 was displayed on the screen. He was standing behind iron bars.

The narrator said, “A prophet detained in the cell for taking drugs and harbouring weapons, however, his enemies didn't notice that not even the detention in cell and false accusation could shake his faith in God. To the wise, this was a foolish thing but God used it to reveal his purpose in the life of TB Joshua giving him the necessary experience and maturity to handle the greater responsibilities God was preparing for him.

“Like Joseph in the Bible, he has known what it means to be loved, hated, rejected enslaved accused and falsely convicted, he bore everything that happened to him calmly."
On the screen, a written file was displayed as a letter from the NDLEA confirming the prophet's innocence and clearing him from charges of drug dealing after having been detained for 13 days.

The narrator continued, “Remember our enemies might rob us of liberty and confine us now but they cannot shut us out of the throne of mercy and communion with God. Falsely accused of drug dealing by the NDLEA."

The video further showed a 1966 version of TB Joshua after he left detention addressing his congregation for their love and support during his absence.

It was stated that he appeared at the church the following Sunday expressing gratitude to members for faithfulness and love, for standing by him in a hard time.
He said, “I am using this opportunity to thank you all for your unequal efforts towards my absence. God Almighty will continue to bless and be with you.

“If you say to yourself why me, of all these troubles, persecutions, tribulations, all sorts of things, I want you to now think back, why me of all the spiritual blessings in my life? When you count the blessings of God in your life doubts will fly away.

“Even if you are suffering and you lack this or that, remember the blessings of God like food, shelter and many others you are enjoying today."

Another video shows the “confession” of a man who claimed to be one of the officers who arrested him in 1996 on the accusation of drug dealing.

Yusuf Hassan, who hails from Adamawa State, said he worked with the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency when an informant tipped them off that Joshua was dealing drugs within his church premises.

Storming The Synagogue Church of All Nations in Lagos with 18 “armed” officers and six soldiers, Yusuf recounted how the cleric was arrested and subsequently incarcerated for 13 days.

“On our way to the office, we asked him that – if he was a man of God, let him disappear,” Hassan reminisced, describing how the operatives all taunted the cleric en route to prison.

“Our officers destroyed a lot of things while searching for drugs – but we couldn’t find anything. On the 13th day he was released because nothing incriminating was found on him or with him,” Yusuf continued.

However, after Joshua’s innocence was established, Hassan revealed that calamity befell all those involved in the operation.

“Among the officers that came to arrest TB Joshua, three of them are no longer alive. All 18 officers, except for myself, have been dismissed,” he revealed.

Yusuf himself said he was “on suspension” after a court case landed him in prison for 10 months.

“I want God to deliver me from the part I took in this arrest,” he concluded.


TB Joshua: A Time To Come And A Time To Leave! By Ozodinukwe Okenwa

Many Nigerians outside the Synagogue family may not have known that TB Joshua's birthday is on June 12. A greater event unfolded on June 12 1993 and it must have overshadowed the late Prophet's birthday. On that historic day of June, the 12th, democracy was gloriously born in Nigeria but was murdered by a military gang led by Generals Ibrahim Babangida and the late Sani Abacha.

Sahara Reporters
June 9, 2021

The Nigerian popular televangelist, Prophet Temitope Balogun Joshua, popularly known as TB Joshua, the founder of the Lagos-based Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN) died over the weekend in Lagos. Prophet Joshua was said to have conducted an evening service in his church and was on his way to the hospital when he died. He was said to have fallen sick two days prior. His 58th birthday was billed for June 12. His megachurch runs the popular Emmanuel TV from Lagos and viewed worldwide. Prophet Joshua was born on June 12, 1963. He hailed from Arigidi Akoko, in Akoko North West Area of Ondo State. He was married and had three children.

According to the widow, Evelyn Joshua, however, the man of miracle had spent about three long hours on the 'mountain' praying before mounting the pulpit for the evening worship. Ministering the gospel to the faithful the Prophet spoke prophetically about a time to come and a time to leave. And suddenly he took his leave retreating to his inner chambers.

As the woman, according to her narrative, waited for some time for her husband to re-emerge to continue the service she decided to check on him. Lo and behold she met the famous Prophet sitting on the chair like someone reflecting but unconscious! Efforts to revive him proved abortive.

It would seem that Prophet Joshua had a premonition of the grim reaper lurking by the corner going by the trending video in which he had exhorted his members to mark his upcoming birthday by praying and fasting. He had these to say: "As things stand, you may have realised it will not be easy for me to celebrate my birthday under the present circumstances. Some of the people who want to come are troubled by the situation all over the world. We see their fear and their worry. I feel their pain; I feel their worry....  Therefore, let us dedicate this day to prayer and fasting. Don't forget the needy. By the grace of God, more birthdays are ahead. God bless you!"

According to some online reports some soldiers and other security agents had laid siege to the Synagogue edifice as if something was wrong somewhere. They were said to have molested journalists, preventing people from getting inside the temple of God. Nigeria and her security elements never ceased to amaze the outside world with their unprofessional work ethics. Why preventing legitimate people from getting into Synagogue? Or was there a search warrant or fears of looting following Joshua's sudden demise?

Prophet TB Joshua rose from a poor parental background to become a great man. He touched lives, he empowered lives. He was controversial yet an enigma. In a nation where pentecostalism has become a billion-dollar-spinning 'business' Joshua made name and money for himself building the Synagogue to become one of the greatest christian organizations in Nigeria and Africa. His followers cut across regions and countries.

Scenes of melancholy could be seen on video online as his followers mourned his untimely passage to the great beyond. Men and women, old and young, were seen shedding tears and asking questions over their welfare since their benevolent 'breadwinner' had died. Some were even imploring God to take their lives instead and bring back Joshua!

But regrettably the stunning biblical Lazarus miracle is no longer possible in our generation post-Jesus. No mortal can boast of possessing the power wielded by Jesus the Christ when he raised the dead and buried Lazarus, his friend, from the grave. So Joshua is gone for good, never to return in flesh and blood. To those weeping we ask them to take solace in his good deeds and generosity while he lived. His pentecostal legacy would definitely outlive him from generation to generation.

The general effusion of grief towards the late prophet demonstrated his popularity and the impact he had had on the society. Yet he never endeared himself to many people in Nigeria and outside our shores. At home he was banned from membership of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN). And from Kampala, Uganda came the news that the Pastor of the Christian Life Church, Jackson Senyonga, was celebrating Joshua's death! He described him as the "biggest witch in Africa"!

Nigeria boasts of great flamboyant men of God -- Bishops, Prophets, Apostles and Pastors -- the Oyedepos, Okonkwos, Adeboyes, Kumuyis, Sulemans, Enenches, Oyakhilomes etc. But unlike most of these rich and material-conscious 'servants' of God Joshua was different in many ways. He was stupendously rich yet he lived a normal life devoid of bigmanism. He was munificient and philanthropic. 

While his peers were busy buying limousines and private jets he was content living modestly. Though he possessed the financial resources to indulge in such luxurious lifestyle or fantasy he decided to be himself believing in the vanity of material possessions here on earth. Perhaps that was why he was hated by his pentecostal peers.

When he began his ministry flaks and fireworks followed almost immediately because of his unconventional methods and tactics. He started off as a man of God of questionable credibility and source of spiritual power. But he ended up convincing millions of Nigerians and non-Nigerians of his healing and deliverance powers.

Prophet Joshua courted controversy as he set his eyes on the bigger picture. He began rough and tough! His physical attribute, heavily-bearded and eagle-eyed, was not only intimidating but his manner of deliverance raised questions about his possible involvement in occultism or sorcery. Initially he was alleged to have been using alligator pepper and other traditional instruments to drive away demonic spirits. He did many miracles and predicted events of the future. Some of these predictions hit their marks while others fell by the way side.

In the Holy Book we, as Christians, are admonished against proclaiming or reaching judgement on anyone since the ultimate judgement belongs to the heavenly hosts. But we dare say here that Joshua had this myth about his personality and evangelism that was as perplexing as it was interrogatory. Doubts about his staying spiritual power and his modest academic profile persisted for years even as the membership of Synagogue multiplied.

Many years ago (precisely in 1996) the late Prophet was arrested for drug peddling in Lagos by the operatives of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency and detained for two weeks. It later turned out to be false accusation as nothing incriminating was found on him or inside his churchor home.

On 12 September, 2014, a guesthouse collapsed in the SCOAN's premises in Lagos killing at least 115 people! 84 of those that perished were South Africans. This tragedy led many into believing that a blood sacrifice could have been the cause of it all! It was not the first time a building under construction had collapsed in Lagos or elsewhere in Nigeria. But what made the Synagogue building collapse more controversial was the large number of foreign victims. Litigation followed and Prophet Joshua survived the storm.

Many Nigerians outside the Synagogue family may not have known that TB Joshua's birthday is on June 12. A greater event unfolded on June 12 1993 and it must have overshadowed the late Prophet's birthday. On that historic day of June, the 12th, democracy was gloriously born in Nigeria but was murdered by a military gang led by Generals Ibrahim Babangida and the late Sani Abacha.

Now that another June 12 is imminently upon us we must, given the Buharian slow but steady loading absolutism, return to the trenches to defend democracy in our country. Bashorun MKO Abiola could not have died in vain while trying to actualize 'Hope-93'.

As for Prophet Temitope Balogun Joshua the parting word is instructive for us, the living: 'A time to come and a time to leave'! That is the portion of every living carnivorous and omnivorous animal. From the cradle to the grave remains till eternity our existential reality. Prophet Joshua came, he saw and he conquered. 

Fare thee well, Prophet. We grieve for you!

SOC Okenwa


Jun 9, 2021

KGB – and why Ringo Starr filled a suitcase with baked beans

Two new documentaries offer intriguing insights into the band’s escape to India in 1967

Andrew Male
The Irish Times
Jun 8, 2021
In 1968 Paul Saltzman was a lost soul. The son of a Canadian TV weatherman, he was working as a sound engineer for the National Film Board of Canada in India when he received a “Dear John” letter from the woman he thought was going to be his wife. “I was devastated,” he says. “Then someone on the crew said: ‘Have you tried meditation for the heartbreak?’”

Saltzman went to see the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi – the founder of transcendental meditation – speak at New Delhi University. Emboldened by promises of “inner rejuvenation”, Saltzman then travelled to the International Academy of Meditation in Rishikesh. It was closed because of the arrival of The Beatles.

As explained by Paul McCartney in the Beatles book Anthology, the exhausted group, still coming to terms with the suicide of their manager Brian Epstein in August 1967, had arrived in Rishikesh with wives and girlfriends to “find the answer” through the teachings of the Maharishi, whom Paul, George and John had first encountered at a lecture at the London Hilton. “There was a feeling of: ‘It’s great to be famous [and] rich,” said McCartney, “but what it’s all for?’”

‘In the week I spent with them,’ says Paul Saltzman, director of Meeting the Beatles in India, ‘I never thought of asking for an autograph, and I only took my camera out twice’
“I didn’t even know the Beatles were in India,” Saltzman says. “I waited outside for eight days, and then I was taken to a small room where I was taught transcendental meditation. What replaced the agony [of the breakup] was bliss.”

Saltzman is now 78, and his film Meeting the Beatles in India is one of two new documentaries on the subject. With narration by Morgan Freeman, and contributions from the director David Lynch and the Beatles biographer Mark Lewisohn, it is expansive and grand, but at its heart is the smaller, affecting tale of Saltzman himself.

He is charming company, and there is a trustworthy innocence to his storytelling, his face openly ready to laugh or cry – both of which he does during our talk. You imagine it was something of this openness that led the normally wary Lennon to invite Saltzman to sit with the group, their wives and friends, one warm February morning 53 years ago.

“Maybe being in that altered state from having just meditated for the first time made a difference,” he says. “I think what they picked up immediately was: ‘This guy is not wanting anything from us.’”

Saltzman had arrived at the ashram with few belongings. One of those was a Pentax camera. “In the week I spent with them,” he says, “I never thought of asking for an autograph, and I only took my camera out twice.”

The photographs he took during that week of meditation are remarkable. Forgotten about for 30 years, then rescued from storage in the late 1990s when his daughter casually asked about “that time you met the Beatles”, they show John, Paul, George and Ringo hanging with fellow ashram guests Donovan, Mike Love of the Beach Boys, the jazz flautist Paul Horn, and the actor Mia Farrow and her sister Prudence in an unguarded and utterly relaxed state, rehearsing new songs or just gazing contentedly into the middle distance.

“I didn’t even think about the quality of the pictures,” says Saltzman. “Then I took them to Steven Maycock, the curator of rock memorabilia at Sotheby’s, and he said: ‘These are the best intimate shots of The Beatles we’ve ever seen.’”

The group returned to London with 30 new songs, most of which would end up on the White Album in 1968. But the band soon fell back into a toxic pattern of late nights, drug use and interpersonal fractiousness. Saltzman’s photos – sharply focused and with deep eye contact – show four friends in a rare, late state of carefree contentment.

“You can tell The Beatles’ story so many different ways,” says the Indian film director Ajoy Bose when I mention Saltzman’s story. “I always felt that the India part of the Beatles saga was bigger than Rishikesh.”

Bose’s film, The Beatles and India, maps a longer saga: a three-year journey, from when George first picked up a sitar on the set of Help!, via their brief sightseeing trip to Delhi in July 1966, to George’s friendship with sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar and his recording of Wonderwall Music with classical Indian musicians in the HMV Bombay studios.

“For me this isn’t a story about the Maharishi,” says Bose, whose film has just closed the UK Asian Film Festival. “It’s about four working-class lads from Liverpool, who got deeply into Indian culture, when George was the de facto leader of the group.” Some got into it more deeply than others; worried about the spicy food, Ringo arrived with a suitcase full of tins of Heinz baked beans to sustain him.

Running parallel to that tale, Bose’s film tells the equally fascinating story of how and why India fell in love with The Beatles. “I discovered them when I was about 12 or 13,” says Bose. “I was from the English-speaking Bengali middle classes, who had been into Elvis Presley, Jim Reeves and Doris Day, and who were naturally bicultural. PG Wodehouse was our sense of humour, and that’s why I think there was an immediate connection with The Beatles: the wit.

“But my father was a bureaucrat who started with the British Raj,” he says. “His problem with the Beatles was that they didn’t behave ‘like Britishers’ – people with a stiff upper lip, who had short hair and didn’t let their feelings show. So The Beatles, with their long hair and jokes, really blew our minds.”

Rather than presenting The Beatles’ relationship with India as one of cultural appropriation, Bose insists it was something closer to cultural exchange. “Osmosis on both sides,” he says. “And look at the paradox. The Beatles were tired of the West’s commercialised capitalist culture and looking for spiritual peace, but we looked upon them as exciting symbols of modern culture.”

Bose’s film tracks down former members of Beatles-influenced Indian “beat” groups, such as The Savages and The Jets, but also goes beyond music to look at the political impact of the Beatles’ presence in India, including the reaction of a KGB spy at the Maharishi’s ashram.

“I went back to Indian newspapers in 1968,” says Bose, “and discovered that communist and socialist Indian politicians were saying Rishikesh was a CIA camp. The KGB even sent their top man, Yuri Bezmenov, to Rishikesh to find out what was going on.” Bose’s discovery results in one of the finest moments of the film, a clip of Bezmenov talking happily in the late 1980s about “Mia Farrow and other useful idiots from Hollywood” returning to the United States to spread a message of “sit down, look at your navel and do nothing”.

“The Maharishi was not on the payroll of the KGB,” says Bezmenov, laughing, “but whether he knows it or not, he contributed greatly to the demoralisation of American society.”

“It’s a great clip,” says Bose, “but I do think that Rishikesh was massively important for so many reasons. India gave the Beatles a philosophical state of mind; India matured them, India helped them become individuals. In a way, the Beatles never left India. George’s ashes were scattered on the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. The Beatles fan club is still growing in India.”

What do The Beatles mean to a new generation of Indians? Bose says: “Covid has changed our world , our reality over the past 16 months. Everyone is feeling so much more vulnerable and tired, and I think The Beatles, in a very fundamental sense, still reconnect us with a sense of romance, a sense of joy and a sense of innocence.”

Saltzman has been left with more than some priceless holiday photos. What memory does he still hold on to from that week? He replies, instantly: “Doing my first 30-minute meditation. It was fun meeting The Beatles, but that was secondary to the transformation of my inner life.” – Guardian

Meeting the Beatles in India can be seen at gathr.com

Jun 7, 2021

Years After Its Founder’s Death, Cult Publisher Feral House Is Still Celebrating the Bizarre

The L.A.-founded indie publisher continues to put out books that probe our culture’s hidden corners, from UFO cults to Satanists

Matt Haber
LA Magazine 
June 7, 2021

When Adam Parfrey died in 2018, he was honored with an obituary in the New York Times and a full-throated farewell on the official website of the Church of Satan, the latter of which ended with “Hail Adam! Hail Satan!”

Parfrey founded the independent publishing company Feral House in downtown Los Angeles in 1989 and from its noirish offices published titles—Apocalypse Culture, Psychic Dictatorship in the U.S.A., The Secret Life of a Satanist, Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr.—dedicated to some of the very darkest subcultures. Parfrey reveled in the bizarre and had an anthropological interest in the overlooked and forgotten; Feral House’s books served as progenitors of everything from Reddit to Oscar-winning films.

“In the pre-internet days, you couldn’t find things,” says screenwriter Larry Karaszewski, who cowrote the screenplay for Ed Wood based, in part, on a Feral House book. “You had to trust these kinds of sources. And Adam was among the sources.”

The publishing company counted among its writers satanists, punk rockers, conspiracy nuts, serial killers like Ian Brady (aka, the Moors Murderer), and those who could be described as fascists and neo-Nazis. Parfrey, who was raised Jewish in Malibu, fervently maintained that just because he published people’s work didn’t mean he agreed with them.

“Everything the establishment extols as comfortable and right and good makes me sick,” he said in a 1995 interview with a zine.

Parfrey also played the provocateur himself, writing a still-shocking takedown of the feminist Andrea Dworkin in which he called her “pachydermlike,” and playing a black-face character called the minstrel in Crispin Glover’s film What Is It?

“He wanted to shock people out of their malaise,” says his younger sister, Jessica Parfrey, 56.

It’s almost impossible to imagine Parfrey or his company existing in our quick-cancel era, and yet three years after his death at 61, Feral House remains very much alive. Overseen by his sister along with author and longtime associate Christina Ward, the indie publisher continues to probe hidden corners and steadily release new titles.

Out June 11, New Age Grifter: The True Story of Gabriel of Urantia and His Cosmic Family by Joseph L. Flatley tells the story of the founder of a UFO-obsessed cult. Due in July, When We Are Human: Notes from the Age of Pandemics by John Zerzan looks at what the world may be postpandemic.

Jessica Parfrey, who runs the company out of her Port Townsend, Washington, home, has made an effort to find writers different from those that Feral House was originally known for. In 2019, she and Ward put out a call for “writers who identify as Women, People of Color, LGBTQ, and others who have felt excluded from traditional publishing.” Still, she sees herself as being on a continuum with her brother’s approach, which was all about bringing outside voices in.

“There are infinite stories out there,” she says. “I just want to share some that might be super cool but that don’t always get noticed.”


Jun 4, 2021

Welcome to class, here’s your mantra

Steve West
June 1, 2021

An Illinois federal court ruled a student’s lawsuit against a Chicago public school program centered on transcendental meditation can proceed.

U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly’s May 21 ruling denied the city’s request to dismiss the lawsuit altogether. While the judge blocked the claims of three other plaintiffs, he allowed Amontae Williams and his father to sue. Williams was raised a Christian and claims that during his senior year at Chicago’s Bogan Computer Technical High School, he was coerced into participating in the so-called “Quiet Time” exercise and that he experienced direct, personal psychological injury as a result.

Quiet Time originated with the David Lynch Foundation, which promotes transcendental meditation with the goal of reducing stress and violence.

According to the complaint, the foundation partnered with the University of Chicago and persuaded the city’s board of education to greenlight a project implementing the program in a handful of public schools. Instructors were certified by the Maharishi Foundation, a not-for-profit organization founded by Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who developed the transcendental meditation technique.

Though proponents bill the techniques as “scientific,” the complaint details a program with significant religious ceremony, including Sanskrit chants and mantras allegedly directed at Hindu deities and a ritual bell, or “Ghanta,” that Williams said is often used to indicate a desire to interact with a deity. Instructors allegedly advised students to take an oath of secrecy and said breaking the oath would render the meditation exercises ineffective.

Williams claims the meditation instructors rebuffed his questions about the religious nature of the practices. He also says CPS officials sent him to the principal twice for sharing his concerns with classmates and that the principal threatened to suspend him if he didn’t stop talking about the exercise’s connection to Hinduism.

“Compelled prayer in public schools?” quipped legal commentator David French in a segment on his Advisory Opinion podcast. “Slam-dunk bad.” French and co-host Sarah Isgur conceded that meditation might be permissible in public school, but only one neutered of all religious ritual and content.

Judge Kennelly’s ruling means Williams and his father can try to pursue damages, even if they are nominal.


Jun 2, 2021

CultNEWS101 Articles: 6/2/2021

Re-Evaluation Counseling, Youth on Board, QAnon

Boston Globe: Inside the unlicensed counseling that led Boston students to allege emotional abuse
Boston Public Schools allowed students to be subjected to unorthodox group therapy for years.

"As a Boston high school sophomore, Keondre McClay said he was pressured by the head of a district-sponsored youth advocacy program to attend an overnight retreat in Newton, where white adults asked the Black teenager to wrestle out his emotions on a gym mat with them. They said it would help him purge his trauma from experiencing racism.

McClay fled to his room. Jenny Sazama, the program leader, and other retreat participants chased after him. For more than an hour, he recalled recently, they hugged him on his bed and entreated him to return to the group "counseling" session while he hid under the covers screaming, "Please leave me alone!"

When they eventually left, he locked the door, but someone got the facilities manager to unlock it. McClay called someone to help him get home at midnight.
"I was, for lack of a better word, assaulted," said McClay, now 21, a former student representative to the Boston School Committee.

The retreat was part of an unorthodox brand of group therapy Sazama introduced to the Boston Student Advisory Council, a prestigious student government group that advises the superintendent and School Committee on education policy. In a report released by the school department Monday, an independent investigator wrote that students described the "Re-Evaluation Counseling" sessions as "weird, uncomfortable, and cult-like." But the report barely scratched the surface of students' experiences."

Boston Globe: Boston schools superintendent announces changes after investigation finds students were pressured into unlicensed counseling
"Boston schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said Monday she has ended the district's relationship with a nonprofit program that ran a prestigious student advisory group for two decades, following an independent investigation that showed students felt the director stifled their voices, emotionally manipulated them, and pushed them to attend inappropriate group counseling sessions.

Cassellius said the system is ending its relationship with a group called Youth On Board, whose founder had practiced an unorthodox type of group therapy called Re-evaluation Counseling, or "RC," which students described as a cult. RC, which is both a type of group counseling and an international organization that practices and promotes it, encourages people to relate difficult experiences and release emotions by crying, screaming, or laughing.

The 10-page report, released Monday, confirmed many of the allegations made during a news conference in March by six students, including the then-student representative of the Boston School Committee, who resigned in protest from the Boston Student Advisory Council. The students said that Jenny Sazama, the adult co-director of the council, censored their policy positions and pressured them into attending Re-evaluation Counseling.

The investigator, Alan Oliff, a former Weston schools superintendent now working for private Jewish schools, took no position on RC's therapeutic techniques and did not explore the "cult" allegation, but his report said students described RC in interviews as 'weird, uncomfortable, cult-like.'"

" ... The head of the national RC organization, Tim Jackins, has denied that the organization is at all cult-like."

Boston Student Advisory Council: Investigative Report (PDF)
"... The 10-page report, released Monday, confirmed many of the allegations made during a news conference in March by six students, including the then-student representative of the Boston School Committee, who resigned in protest from the Boston Student Advisory Council. The students said that Jenny Sazama, the adult co-director of the council, censored their policy positions and pressured them into attending Re-evaluation Counseling.

"Since social media companies cracked down on QAnon content following the January 6 Capitol riot, catchphrases and secret messages related to the conspiracy theory have all but disappeared, a new report finds—an indication that Big Tech has the power to squash dangerous online movements when it wants to."

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