Joshua, who has thousands of followers in Nigeria and across the world, counts African heads of state among his flock.

Durban - While some family members of those who died in Lagos, Nigeria during a religious pilgrimage were excited to receive an invitation from prophet TB Joshua to attend a Christmas Day dinner, others where unimpressed.

“God is everywhere. Why should I go to Nigeria?”

This is what Lindo Wittle had to say of the pilgrimage to Lagos by 44 excited locals who left the country on Christmas Day. He was speaking for one of the families of the 84 South Africans who died in a guesthouse building collapse in Nigeria.

The group of 44 were the first batch invited by prophet TB Joshua to his Synagogue Church of All Nations where they had a special Christmas dinner with church officials on Thursday evening.

But the Maphumulo family of Ezimbokodweni on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast denied having received any invitation from the church.

None of the family members were keen on the trip, said the spokesman. The family said they were battling to cope with Nokuphila Maphumulo’s death. She was among the 116 people killed in the tragedy on September 12.

Wittle told the Sunday Tribune he was in Cape Town with the dead woman’s mother, Ngele Mkize, to sort out her estate.

“We had church officials visit with Christmas gifts but they have never mentioned the invitation. Perhaps it has been delayed. Books given to us as gifts were those on TB Joshua’s life and focused on the deceased as martyrs of faith.

“There are scripts of Bible verses on Paul and Daniel depicted as heroes who died for faith. I don’t know whether this has been done to justify the deaths,” he said.

Wittle, a staunch Christian and a member of the African Gospel church, said they found out about the pilgrimage of the 44 in newspapers but were not interested in joining.

“I won’t lie to you, I won’t go. God is everywhere. Why should I go to Nigeria? Even my nephew, Bakhe, who had gone to Nigeria with his mother, Nokuphila, does not want to go back there.

“I have told him not to have hatred towards anyone, but to understand that her death could have happened in a cab bringing her home from the airport,” he said.

Another family member who spoke on condition of anonymity said Christmas had been bleak without her cousin, who showered them with gifts during the festive season. She said they were still battling to come to terms with her death.

“Sometimes we do not believe she died,” she said.

Asked whether South Africa would step in to help should something unpleasant befall those travelling to Lagos, government spokeswoman Phumla Williams said the pilgrims did so of their own volition and the government could not stop them.

“It is a private matter. The government has a commitment to help in any distress anywhere in the world. We cannot limit people on a religious pilgrimage. This is their right, enshrined in the constitution,” Williams said.

According to a spokeswoman for the church, Anthea van Heerden, who is travelling with the group, the 44 were invited to a “beautiful dinner” on Christmas evening. Van Heerden said the family members had gone to pray on a mountain, so she could arrange a telephonic interview.

“They stayed at the church. Prophet TB Joshua stays here too,” Van Heerden said.

The distraught wife of one of the deceased, teacher Wonder Ndlovu, 47, of Acornhoek in Mpumalanga, was looking forward to meeting “the man of God”.

She had been married to Mbongeni Ndlovu, 52, for three years when he died in the building collapse. She described her trip as an emotional and spiritual journey to “heal her internal wounds”.

“We Christians feel that he died in God’s hands. Although it is painful, I am grateful for the invitation,” Ndlovu said.

Sunday Tribune