RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Pentecostalism came to life in the early 1900s here in the U.S. It has since spread around the world faster than any other Christian denomination. Sub-Saharan Africa is now home to nearly 45 percent of all Pentecostals. Yet, last year, the government of the predominantly Christian country of Cameroon started closing down many Pentecostal churches that it saw as a threat to society. Andres Caballero has the story.
ANDRES CABALLERO, BYLINE: I'm in a taxi crossing Douala, Cameron's largest city. The saying here goes, you can't drive for more than 100 yards without coming across a revival church, a new church. And when you can't see them, you can probably hear them.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH SERVICE)
PASTOR GEORGE NFOR ASONGYU: I spend an eternity of poverty lost with him, in Jesus' name.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).
ASONGYU: (Singing) The hour has come.
CABALLERO: Ministry Faith Banner sits near a busy corner. It's Sunday morning, and the sound from the church's loudspeakers clash with that of passing moto-taxis. Dozens of worshippers stand under a blue overflow tent that extends all the way to the sidewalk. Inside the main room, Pastor George Nfor Asongyu, who's blind, wipes the sweat from his forehead with a white towel and delivers the message. People worship while a group of children take naps near the fans. But this could be the last Sunday service.
ASONGYU: In a week's time from today, the government will close me down. So it's actually a very, very terrible news, because I've existed for 10 years today.
CABALLERO: There are an estimated 500 Pentecostal churches in Cameroon. But in the last year, the government has closed nearly a hundred of them in three major cities. Most of these churches were not legally registered and were deemed a threat to society.
ASONGYU: They say we pray too much. We disturb. We are breaking down marriages. We destroy homes. We're exploiting people, which is not true. Even if there are churches that do that, it's not me, because I know what call God has given me for this nation.
CABALLERO: Police officers did visit his church, but they seemed interested mostly in shaking him down. One of them asked Pastor Asongyu for 100,000 Central African Francs. That's about $200, which he didn't have. He says he managed to give them something as a token of appreciation, but apparently it wasn't enough.
ASONGYU: He wasn't happy. He was not pleased with the amount I gave him to appreciate him because I was trying to avoid involving myself in bribery and corruption.
CABALLERO: They took the money and said they were going to close the church anyway, citing Asongyu's blindness.
ASONGYU: Just because the policeman wrote that I'm blind, I'm not qualified to be a pastor?
CABALLERO: Like most Pentecostal churches in Cameron, Asongyu's has been operating without legal permission under the government's lax regulations. The only person who can approve a church in Cameroon is the president, Paul Biya. But no church has been officially recognized since 2009. And in the meantime, churches keep sprouting. Last year, Biya's government ordered the crackdown on Pentecostal churches it claimed were criminal enterprises taking advantage of poor, desperate people.
MINISTER OF COMMUNICATION ISSA BAKARY: (French spoken).
CABALLERO: Minister of Communication Issa Bakary says these churches rip people off and take money from their disciples. He says they disturb neighbors with loud services day and night and that the government decided to close them wherever their presence becomes harmful enough to endanger society. So the government set up a commission to review the Pentecostal churches and identify those to close. The head of this commission is himself a Pentecostal, Rev. Ludovic Paulin Fotso.
CABALLERO: Rev. Fotso says that being between the state and the targeted churches is a sensitive task. Some fellow pastors look at him as if he were the police coming after them. But what he's actually trying to do is clean up and reestablish the church's leadership. And the commission has fueled suspicion. Rev. Patrice Metote (ph) is a Pentecostal working to create better training methods for pastors who want to start a church.
REV. PATRICE METOTE: Most pastors, they are not educated. Some have never been in Bible school, you see.
CABALLERO: He says the commission is the government's way of dividing the church.
METOTE: Oh, you see all these persecution you are facing. It's your pastor or your friend's pastor who come and give information against you. This is what they're saying. I say I will never believe that until I see.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH SERVICE)
CABALLERO: It's been over a week since Pastor Asongyu's church was supposed to be locked by military police. But instead, he sits on a chair and plays the bass with the band. This service feels more like a gospel marchosa party. Instead of locking his building, the government asked him for more documents. The registration process is known to take decades. And even though his church is still open today, its future remains uncertain. For NPR News, I'm Andres Caballero.
MARTIN: Andres Caballero is an NPR Above the Fray fellow, sponsored by the John Alexander Project. That's a group supporting young journalists to find stories like the one we just heard.