In the mid-1990s, war came to the African nation of Rwanda.
Ethnic cleansing left millions of Rwandans dependent on foreign aid. Nearly 800,000 people fled the country to refugee camps in neighboring Zaire only to find hunger and disease waiting for them.
But where many saw an opportunity to provide compassionate assistance, others saw a chance for financial gain.
TV preacher Pat Robertson, it seems, might have been among the latter. A new documentary, “Mission Congo,” provides fresh fuel for persistent allegations that Robertson directed charity donations to his mining operations in Zaire, a central African nation now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The film focuses on the money donated to Robertson’s non-profit, Operation Blessing, in 1994. At the height of Rwanda’s crisis, Robertson used his substantial media platform to launch an intense fundraising campaign. Robertson, ever the salesman, assured his viewers that their donations would fund a much-needed medical mission to refugees.
The pitch was simple. For as little as $25 a month, good Christians could save the lives of thousands of needy refugees. Robertson said he’d purchased a fleet of Vietnam-era cargo planes – all, he claimed, for the purposes of bringing medicine to the sick.
“We’re going to ship enough medicine to take care of a quarter of a million refugees,” the Virginia Beach-based evangelist promised.
Robertson outlined ambitious, even noble, goals for the charity’s work in Africa.
“I want to charter a 727 airplane with 100 doctors directly into Goma [a city in Zaire],” he said on his “700 Club.”
Robertson added, “It will be the largest contingent of doctors, I believe, on the field.”
Good words. But according to “Mission Congo” and reporter Bill Sizemore of The Virginian-Pilot, these words weren’t matched by good deeds. Suspicious of the televangelist’s claims, Sizemore published a series of articles that uncovered a disturbing reality: Little of the money donated to Operation Blessing actually found its way to the refugee camps.
Instead, that fabled fleet of cargo planes carried mining equipment and other materials for the African Development Corporation (ADC), a for-profit entity headed by Robertson. The ADC’s financial interest in the region is predictable; the area is rich in natural resources, including precious gems. While cholera ravaged the refugee camps, the ADC hunted for diamonds.
The facts presented by the film are damning. The filmmakers, Lara Zizic and David Turner, interviewed former employees of Operation Blessing, development professionals and Sizemore about the reality of Robertson’s “humanitarian” assistance.
“They [Operation Blessing] had one tent and a stack of Bibles,” said a member of Doctors without Borders, which maintained an active presence in the camps.
Operation Blessing’s version of aid did not go over particularly well with refugees, either. Nearly 20 years after the end of the war, memories still sting.
“People began to refuse the Bibles,” a local resident told Zizic and Turner. “‘What we need is food and medicine,’ they said. Operation Blessing would say, ‘That’s not our mission.’”
That’s certainly not what Robertson told his viewers, and the discrepancy lends credence to claims that Operation Blessing’s resources were deliberately directed away from the camps.
In the film, former employees allege that when the charity’s planes did carry medicine, it was primarily Tylenol, which was of little use in combating the cholera epidemic. According to Operation Blessing’s Operations Manager Jessie Potts, “We got enough Tylenol…too much. I never understood that. We got enough Tylenol to supply all of Zaire.”
So what exactly did Operation Blessing staff accomplish in the camps? According to witnesses, they seemed more interested in evangelism than in medicine. A journalist interviewed for the film recalled watching a minister run alongside a stretcher, Bible in hand, preaching to a cholera victim. The minister worked for Operation Blessing.
The cholera epidemic would eventually claim the lives of more than 40,000 Rwandan refugees, a grim ending to one of the world’s bloodiest conflicts. Meanwhile, Robertson’s corporation reportedly harvested a stunning total of one diamond with the planes and equipment he’d directed away from the camps.
As the ADC’s president and sole share-holder, Robertson had an overwhelming financial interest in the success of its operations. This might explain why most of Robertson’s planes carried mining equipment for the ADC, rather than doctors and medicines for Operation Blessing.
In an interview with Church & State, Sizemore explained that Robertson reacted to coverage of his financial dealings with categorical denials and legal threats.
“He threatened to sue,” Sizemore told Church & State. It wouldn’t be the last time Robertson threatened Sizemore with legal action.
Revelations of Robertson’s fraud caused enough of a public outcry to goad the state of Virginia into conducting its own investigation into Operation Blessing. That investigation, carried out by the office of then-Attorney General Mark Earley, found substantial evidence of fraudulent activity. But Earley, an evangelical Christian closely aligned with Robertson, declined to prosecute the televangelist.
That seems like an odd decision for the state’s top law-enforcement official. It might be explained by the $35,000 donation Robertson made to Earley’s campaign for attorney general. Earley later ran for governor and lost, despite an even heftier donation from Robertson. Cumulatively, Robertson donated nearly $100,000 to Earley over the course of the Republican’s political career.
When Sizemore reported the results of Earley’s investigation – information that was publicly available – Robertson again threatened legal action.
Sizemore recounted the spectacle for Church & State.
“He called a press conference at Regent University [a school founded by Robertson], waved a copy of the newspaper around, and demanded a retraction,” Sizemore recalled.
Flanked by his legal team, Robertson also called for Sizemore and his editors to lose their jobs.
Robertson’s posturing remained just that. There was no lawsuit, and Sizemore didn’t lose his job. In fact, he continued to cover the TV preacher’s African activities, including his close relationships with dictators on the continent. Thanks to Sizemore’s reporting, it’s possible to connect Robertson’s secular business interests to his support for brutal regimes. Robertson might have condemned genocide on television, but off air, he carefully built a working relationship with Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.
In the 1990s, Robertson was close to Mobutu, who ruled the nation with an iron hand during the Rwandan civil war and would eventually be sanctioned by the United Nations for human rights abuses. Despite Mobutu’s known reputation as a dictator, Robertson approached him on ADC’s behalf. The company’s mining venture couldn’t enter Zaire without a license from Mobutu’s regime.
Reports, including Sizemore’s, suggest a friendly relationship between Robertson and the tyrant. In 2001, Time reported that Mobutu, who plundered his nation’s natural resources to enrich himself while many people lived in dire poverty, greeted Robertson on his presidential yacht. Mobutu gave Robertson a tour of the county and even welcomed him to the presidential mansion, where Robertson and his entourage dined on food reportedly prepared by Mobutu’s wife.
In return, Robertson used his media empire to call for an end to sanctions directed at Mobutu’s regime.
It’s this political context that makes his fraud especially remarkable. There’s a clear disconnect between Robertson’s solicitation for Operation Blessing and his investment in ADC, and it reveals a consistent theme: greed, thinly disguised as Christian humanitarian interest. Considering his stake in ADC and his cozy relationship with Mobutu, Robertson’s sudden concern for the humanitarian needs of refugees is suspect, and the allegations of fraud are easier to believe.
Unfortunately, Robertson’s quest for African treasure didn’t end in Zaire.
After Earley’s office declined to prosecute him for fraud, Robertson moved his attention from Mobutu and Zaire to Charles Taylor and Liberia. This time, Robertson wanted gold, and he created another corporation, Freedom Gold, to advance his interests.
Like Mobutu, Taylor found himself subject to sanctions thanks to his dictatorial rule and to human rights abuses committed in Liberia and its diamond-rich neighbor, Sierra Leone. In 2006, the Special Court for Sierra Leone demanded his extradition, a request Taylor’s successor granted. Six years later, the court found Taylor guilty of what it called “some of the most heinous and brutal crimes recorded in human history.”
Taylor’s oppressive policies were no secret in the mid-’90s, when Robertson most actively pursued his African mining ventures. Nevertheless, Robertson struck up a business relationship with the dictator. In return for a license to mine in Liberia, Robertson promised 10 percent of any profits to Taylor’s regime.
Once again, Sizemore covered the televangelist’s suspicious business activities. In a 2003 piece for Ms., he reported that Robertson’s new company, Freedom Gold, was structured identically to the African Development Corporation. Robertson acted as president and sole shareholder of this company, too.
Robertson took to “The 700 Club” to call for an end to sanctions against Taylor, just like he’d done for Mobutu. He was so diligent in his defense of Taylor he even wrote to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell to personally request a change in policy.
While Robertson defended him on TV, Taylor armed rebels in Sierra Leone, facilitating the mass rape and mutilation of thousands of civilians.
Barry W. Lynn, Americans United’s executive director, strongly condemned the televangelist when news of his relationship with Taylor first broke.
“Taylor is one of the most brutal dictators in Africa, and it is appalling to me that Robertson would enter into a partnership with him merely to make money,” Lynn said at the time.
He added, “Now Robertson is using his tax-exempt Christian broadcast ministry to lobby the U.S. government to keep his crony in power. This is astounding.”
Robertson’s business relationship with Taylor reveals the extraordinary implications of Earley’s refusal to prosecute the televangelist for his activities in Zaire. Unchecked and protected by his political influence, Rob- ertson continued to use his public platform in a quest for personal profit.
The incongruity of a minister working alongside warlords for profit would be a compelling story, even if the minister in question weren’t Pat Robertson. But the Virginia evangelist’s profile transforms the saga into a matter of broader public concern.
Sizemore agrees. “This is a story of national interest,” he told Church & State.
Sizemore added that he’s pleased to see “Mission Congo” on screens, remarking, “To the degree that the film exposes people to the story, it’s a good thing.”
Sizemore added, “Pat Robertson is a national figure. He ran for president, he has a media empire and he and his organization continue to enjoy tax-exempt status.”
It’s unclear if any legal action will follow in the wake of the premiere of “Mission Congo.” Virginia is undergoing a change of administrations after last month’s elections, and it’s too early to tell if the outcome of that election will influence the launch of another investigation into Operation Blessing’s activities.
To date, Robertson remains unapologetic about his mining ventures and his relationships with Mobutu and Taylor. After Mobutu’s fall in 1997, Robertson even reached out to Laurent Kablia, the rebel leader who deposed Mobutu and ran the country for about five years before being assassinated.
Robertson invited Kabila to visit him the United States. But the rebel leader, who returned Zaire to its original name of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, rebuffed Robertson’s overture. In the years since, the country has spiraled into one of the world’s most brutal civil wars, with millions being murdered, raped and displaced.
As for Operation Blessing, it still solicits donations for its activities in the country. Its website advertises hospitals and schools that, according to “Mission Congo,” were never actually built. It lauds the success of Dumi Farm, an agricultural project that was actually abandoned in 1994 – exactly when Robertson began to redirect the charity’s resources to his diamond mines.
Robertson is up to his old tricks, threatening to sue Zizic and Turner over their film. As reported by the Virginian-Pilot, a spokesman for Operation Blessing called the documentary’s allegations of fraud “false and defamatory,” and stated that its legal team is pursuing options.
Zizic had originally agreed to be interviewed for this piece. Due to Robertson’s persistent and aggressive legal threats, her lawyers advised her not to speak to Church & State. (The film’s website is www.missioncongo.com)
Observers say that Robertson’s bullying tactics can’t obscure the message of “Mission Congo.”
“This is an important film,” says AU’s Lynn. “It provides a necessary service by renewing public interest in a story that demonstrates the global reach of America’s Religious Right.”
Continued Lynn, “It also trains the media spotlight exactly where it belongs: on Robertson’s reckless behavior and his cruel exploitation of his followers’ gullibility.”