Pastor Jerome under the radar, CID to probe the big bucks behind his churchView(s):
By Sandun Jayawardana and Damith Wickramasekara
A wide-ranging criminal investigation into Pastor Jerome Fernando, now at the centre of a controversy, will look into his finances and how vast sums of money came to maintain his massive church complex in Katunayake, which authorities confirm is unregistered.
Pastor Fernando, a self-styled “prophet,” describes himself on his website as the senior overseer of the Glorious Church in Colombo, which is part of the Glorious Global Church. The Glorious Church’s main complex in Katunayake, known as the “Miracle Dome” however, is not registered with the Ministry of Buddhasasana, Religious and Cultural Affairs as a place of worship, subject Minister Vidura Wickramanayaka told the Sunday Times. “We have forwarded the details we have on the matter to the Inspector General of Police (IGP) to take action within the legal framework,” Minister Wickramanayaka said.
Registration is not mandatory and the church has not broken the law by not registering “Miracle Dome” with his ministry, noted the minister. The issue however, has prompted the Buddhasasana Ministry to take action. There are places of worship from all religions in the country that are not registered, Mr Wickramanayaka said. The minister is now preparing to submit a Cabinet paper proposing to make it a legal requirement for all religious centres and places of religious worship to register with the authorities. He claimed the move is aimed at protecting the adherents of the religions, clergy and the centres and places of worship.
The pastor’s recent allegedly derogatory comments regarding several religions have been widely condemned, with some even calling for his arrest. “No one is allowed to defame a religion or religious leader in public like that,” Minister Wickramanayaka said.
The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) had received five complaints against the pastor as of Friday (19). They relate to his alleged derogatory comments on Lord Buddha, Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism. Based on the complaints, detectives are also investigating him over alleged money laundering activities, a senior CID officer disclosed.
While the CID obtained an overseas travel ban on pastor Fernando from the Colombo Magistrate’s Court on Tuesday (16), he had already left the country by then. Taking to his official Instagram page, he told his followers that he was presently travelling on “pre-scheduled official matters pertaining to the ministry” and will be back in Sri Lanka today (21). He invited them to be present at the vast “Miracle Dome” complex of his church in Katunayake at 10 a.m. that day for “Mega Church Day.”
Sources said the pastor was also flying to Malaysia from Singapore. Photographs uploaded to Instagram on Friday evening showed the pastor leading a prayer meeting in Malaysia.
Though an announcement posted on Wednesday (17) on his social media pages urged followers to await a “special broadcast” from pastor Fernando, no such broadcast was made.
On Friday, messages were sent out to the pastor’s followers informing them that Sunday’s Service scheduled to be held at the “Miracle Dome” has been cancelled. Church attendees have been told to celebrate the Sunday Service at their respective branches today.
The CID has the power to arrest the pastor on arrival under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on charges of creating religious and communal disharmony, the CID source said. The department will also be looking into other crimes he is accused of in the complaints, notably money laundering and whether there are others in Sri Lanka who might be linked to such activities.
Pastor Fernando’s website claims that he graduated in theological studies at the Asian Access School of Theology, which is affiliated with the Gordon Cornwell University of Theology, USA. He is also listed as the Chancellor of Osborne University of Theology, UK, appointed by his “Spiritual Father,” Zimbabwean “prophet” Uebert Angel.
In March this year, “prophet” Angel was exposed by Qatar based television channel Al Jazeera’s Investigation Unit (I-Unit) telling undercover reporters that he could use his status as a diplomat to launder millions of dollars through a gold smuggling racket.
Angel, who had been appointed ambassador-at-large and a presidential envoy by Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa, told undercover reporters, posing as Asian criminals, that he could carry large amounts of “dirty money” into the country using his high diplomatic status. The money would then be exchanged for Zimbabwe’s gold, which the recipients could in turn sell for legitimate money, thus turning their cash clean. Angel has since denied the allegations, with his office issuing a lengthy statement insisting that Al Jazeera’s recorded episode with fake investors was a “well-crafted” ploy to trap the ambassador and tarnish his image.
Angel was in Sri Lanka less than a week before the Al Jazeera story broke. Video posted on Pastor Fernando’s YouTube channel shows him apparently showing up unannounced at the Katunayake “Miracle Dome” on March 19 while pastor Fernando is preaching.
The “Miracle Dome” complex has attracted much scrutiny in the wake of the controversy over questions regarding how it came to be built, as well as who and how it was funded. Construction of the complex began around 2015 and it was officially opened in May last year. The complex is described as a 5000-seat “House of God.”
Given that there are regulations surrounding the building of a place of religious worship, Rev.Fr. Cyril Gamini Fernando of the Catholic Church questioned how pastor Fernando had been allowed to build such a vast complex. “We can’t build a church just like that. There are regulations we must follow. Did he get the proper approvals to build this complex?” he queried. The senior Catholic priest also expressed surprise that authorities had not taken action to investigate the pastor earlier given his close association to Uebert Angel.
Approval to build “Miracle Dome” was not given by elected members of the Katunayake-Seeduwa Urban Council, claimed former Council Chairman Chamith Nishantha Fernando. “Construction began at a time the local authorities had been dissolved. You will recall that local authorities were run by the secretaries from 2015 to 2018, just as they are now. We had no part in approving it and I believe it was council officials who gave the go ahead for the construction, though I cannot definitely say which officials were responsible,” said the chairman. He said as far as he is aware, approval had been sought to build a “convention centre” at the site and there had been no mention that it would serve as a place of religious worship.
Urban Development Authority (UDA) Director General Prasad Ranaweera said he is unaware whether proper approval had been obtained from his authority to construct the “Miracle Dome” complex. “We have not been made aware of this issue until now but it is certainly something we will have to look into,” he told the Sunday Times.
Meanwhile, a fundamental rights petition was filed in the Supreme Court (SC) on Thursday (18) by several petitioners requesting the SC to order the IGP to arrest pastor Jerome Fernando for allegedly making remarks that are insulting to Buddhism and other religions.
The seven petitioners include Ven. Elle Gunawansa Thera and Ven. Bengamuwe Nalaka Thera. The petition has cited 16 respondents, including the IGP, the Director of the CID, the Minister of Public Security and the Attorney General.
The petitioners note that alleged derogatory comments made by pastor Fernando regarding several religions including Lord Buddha and Buddhism have circulated widely on social media. They claim that the comments are an obstacle to religious harmony and a serious threat to religious and communal co-existence. The petitioners have urged the SC to order the IGP and other officials to conduct an investigation into the pastor under the ICCPR Act.
The Sunday Times attempted to contact pastor Fernando’s Glorious Church for comment. The operator who answered the call at the church’s “Faithline” said details will be passed to the pastor’s office and if it cared to respond, it will get back to us. However, no response had been received at the time this edition went to press.
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