Nigerian pastor finds new flock in Ukraine

Kiev, Ukraine - Inside one of Ukraine's biggest sports halls a band pumps out deafening music surrounded by pom pom-waving dancers in shiny blue outfits.

Thousands of people are on their feet enthusiastically singing and clapping along, as if at a pop concert.

A Pentecostal church called the Embassy of God is sweeping across the country.

It claims to have 25,000 members in the capital alone.

For many people here a church service that has a feel-good factor is something new.

"First of all I liked the music and I liked the girl who was singing on the stage. Maybe that's why I went back again. Then I understood that there's a God and he loves us," says maths teacher Roman Bazhok, who has been a member of the church for two years.

Political devotees

One of the main reasons the Embassy of God attracts so many people is down to its charismatic leader Sunday Adelaja.

He left Nigeria to escape witchcraft and to study in the Soviet Union.

After the collapse of communism Pastor Sunday, as he is known, started his own church with just a handful of fellow African students in the capital.

Now politicians and even Kiev's mayor Leonid Chernovetsky are regulars.

Wearing a striking green suit, Mr Adelaja charms the audience with tales about the temptations he has turned down.

Speaking in accented Russian he tells the youthful congregation they should abstain not just from sex but also kissing before marriage.

Then looking close to tears, with his hands in the air, he says a prayer.

Today he is preaching to more than 10,000 people at the same place in Kiev that was used to host the Eurovision Song Contest last year.

The Embassy of God hires this venue once a month.

Normally services are held at a dilapidated hall in an industrial part of the capital and at other churches throughout the country.

Uncertain response

Pastor Sunday says he has faced a lot of hostility in Ukraine.

"Can you imagine a black man coming from Africa, in this society; here you are lucky if you are white because if you are black you will feel the difference," claims Mr Adelaja.

"Here there are not too many black people. Even the Orthodox priests say to me go and play basketball, go and play soccer but don't try to teach us how to live."

The Orthodox Church is still the main religion in Ukraine despite the Embassy of God growing in popularity.

Golden-domed churches dominate the skyline of Kiev.

Inside St Michael's Cathedral priests in purple and red robes conduct an early morning service led by Father Superior Yevstratiy Zorya.

Ancient icons glow in the candle-light as women wearing headscarves kneel on the cold stone floor.

Nothing like the Embassy of God has ever been seen before in Ukraine.

Some critics are suspicious of this evangelical movement and its close relationship with powerful politicians.

'No brainwashing'

The Orthodox Church feels threatened. It says Embassy of God is a cult.

"The followers become like zombies - they are fully devoted to the leader of the organisation, ready to fulfil any of his desires," says Father Superior Yevstratiy Zorya, spokesman for the Orthodox Church in Kiev.

"It also has an impact on political life, because these people help to campaign for the politicians loyal to their church."

The Embassy of God says there is no brainwashing. Instead it targets people who feel rejected by society.

It runs a homeless shelter in the capital which helps prostitutes, drug addicts and members of the mafia like Alexander Skrypin.

"Before my encounter with God I was quite a rich person, but it didn't save me from being drunk in the gutter and living in brothels. After coming to Embassy of God I know that my life is for living," says Alexander, a former bank robber.

Many people have become alienated following the end of the Soviet Union.

There is poverty, unemployment, and a state which is no longer able to care for everyone.

Perhaps the reason that this new church is so popular is that it offers a sense of community, something which has been in short supply for many Ukrainians.