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JOHANNESBURG - There is so much money to be made in religion. In South Africa, religion is a fast-selling commodity. It has catapulted virtually unknowns into celebrities.

For millions who have to deal with the country’s dire socio-economic conditions, the burgeoning charismatic churches have provided an illusion that religion could be the the quickest way out.

And these charlatans have scavenged on this desperation.

Mark you, these are not ordinary crooks. They have catchy names and television programmes to prove their worth - from the Incredible Happenings to the Enlightened Christian Gathering Church and Alleluia Ministries International.

They run well-oiled businesses.

The prophets - as the leaders of these operations want the world to believe they are - gleefully exploit religions for own selfish ends. The outcomes are usually the same - well-off celebrity pastors in the midst of poverty.

Why then are we surprised to near-despair when another of the fraudsters tells us that he has brought a dead man back to life?

The answer lies in our acceptance of these cheats as bona fide religious leaders.

The pseudo-resurrection of a certain “Elliot” by the fabulously rich Alph Lukau may have rightfully turned into a social media joke for us not to look into this dastardly ridicule.

But the real joke is on Christianity - a faith some of us have subscribed to for as far as we can remember.

We have been told of deliverance and tithing as a way to atone for our sins.

And the tricksters have been waiting on the sideline to sponge off even the last drop of blood from their congregations.

In recent years we have heard of a pastor who claims that he can use his cellphone to consult with “Papa God” to intervene in the marital problems of his churchgoers (now how crazy does it get).

We have also, astonishingly, learnt of some who convince people that consuming live snakes and praying while a harmful insecticide is being sprayed on you is a way to redemption.

Our churches in both urban and rural areas have become “miracle centres” where people pay a premium price to get God’s blessing and see his much-touted “amazing grace”.Lukau and his ilk have become wealthy on the back of mostly poor black South Africans, whose only hope in the busy streets of life is the gospel.

And the good book is not short of material for “men of God” to misconstrue to their own benefit.

The book of Malachi 3:8 says: “Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say: ‘How have we robbed you?’ In your tithes and contributions.”

The book of Malachi does not stop there, it goes on to say: “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.” - Malachi 3:10.

These are some of the verses that are used by the thirsty pastors as the main solicitation to swindle people of their hard-earned money to support business enterprises.

The wealth attributed to Lukau, Shepherd Bushiri and other conmen like Paseka Motsoeneng in their flashy cars and private jets has put the tithing practice on trial.

The idea that when people do not pay their tithes, they will be exempt from God’s blessings is not only nonsensical, but smacks of manipulation.

The power of the “prosperity gospel” preached by these pastors is so wide that it has even ensnared the well-educated and well-to-do among us to do things that normal societies could describe as crazy.

We blame religion for their insatiable greed and the naiveté of their congregants.

We have allowed abuses such as sexual ones to become normal in the name of religion.

We have thus contributed in putting religions instead of these impostors on trial.

It is almost impossible for any government to regulate people’s choices.

But education on these phony churches would protect South Africans from such a grand swindle.

Beyond the collective rebuke and disdain to Lukau and his ilk, we need to arm ordinary South Africans with defence mechanisms against them.

Christianity, or any religion for that matter, should never be put up for sale.