On a wing and a prayer

Globetrotting evangelist Dr KA Paul fights evil around the world from his personal Boeing 747. He's helped bring peace to Liberia, and he's still working on Iraq. Andrew Buncombe reports
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The Independent US

There must be a suitable superlative with which to describe Dr KA Paul. Is he the most successful evangelist in the world? Is he the one who draws the biggest crowds? Is he the only preacher who can name dictators and tyrants with whom he has had contact? Is he simply the one with the most self-confidence?

It may be that he is all of these. Which is a remarkable thought given that his profile in Britain and the US is in the order of slim to very slim. Indeed, it may be that you have never even heard of Dr KA Paul.

That could change very soon, if the 41-year-old man who calls himself the "Billy Graham of India", has his way. Having taken the word of the Bible to all corners of Africa and Asia, the Indian-born founder of the Global Peace Initiative (GPI) now has the people of the US in his sights. And it is not just their souls he is after.

Having lived in the sweltering Texas city of Houston for the last 12 years, he knows very well that, while there is plenty of poverty in the US, there is also an awful lot of money sloshing around. It is money which Paul - whose honorific title was bestowed by the good people at the Living Word Bible College in Swan River, Manitoba - can use to fund his work around the world.

"Americans need to understand the East, and Easterners need to understand the West. There are wonderful people in the US that have a tremendous giving power," he says with a smile. "If they only knew how they can make a significant difference in the lives of many, especially the street children, Aids victims and the widows who are committing suicide in India, Asia and Africa. Much is given and much is required."

In order to achieve this, Paul has recently set about a new publicity drive, hiring PR people and recruiting Congressmen and former politicians to help promote his work. He has bought a Boeing 747, which he calls Global Peace One, for use on relief missions, and he has even secured the assistance of the four-time heavyweight boxing champion of the world, Evander Holyfield, to provide his cause with a little celebrity punch.

In the meantime, however, Paul is struggling with a number of issues about his adopted homeland - primarily about the morality of its avowedly born-again leader, George Bush, and his war in Iraq. People ask him every day, he says, just how it can be that President Bush claims to be a Christian while waging a pre-emptive war against Iraq that killed thousands of civilians. It is a question to which he does not have a ready answer.

Paul is used to confronting difficult questions and awkward situations. For the past two decades he has made something of a name for himself dealing with many of the world's most notorious dictators and despots. He has talked with Slobodan Milosevic, the former leader of Yugoslavia, and his lieutenants have held meetings with senior figures from the regime of Saddam Hussein. He counselled Guy Philippe - the leader of the ragtag rebel forces who recently ousted Jean-Bertrand Aristide from office in Haiti - to lay down his arms. Most famously, he travelled to the West African nation of Liberia and persuaded the blood-thirsty lunatic Charles Taylor to step down in order to avoid more killing. "I will say that 99 per cent of [the credit] goes to Dr KA Paul alone," Taylor personally wrote in a letter to The New York Times.

Paul says: "I count it a privilege. I count it as a calling to go and meet with leaders in this world who [are] causing more innocent killings, as an appointed ambassador from God. I speak for those orphans and widows. That is why I put myself at risk to stop that. If we had not have stopped the Liberian war as Charles Taylor tells everybody - he is still my friend, he called me just a few days ago - he never wanted to leave Liberia. He had 50,000 troops willing to fight and die for him. What would have happened? What happened in the past? Two thousand peacekeeping troops have been killed. So killings would have continued and thousands more people... there would have been a major genocide." He adds: "Now I am dealing with the Iranian leadership and my people are in North Korea, before I have my official visit. It is important to meet with these leaders and convince them... to reveal and show them [that] what they are doing is wrong."

When I meet Paul in the lounge area of a hotel in Washington, where he has offices, I ask him why he thinks these dictators are prepared to deal with him, to lay down their arms and even give up their empires at his request while others have failed. I quickly learn that Paul, dressed in a cream-coloured Nehru-style jacket that he favours, does not lack self-confidence.

"Nobody is willing to go to them, speak to them confrontationally [and say] 'Enough is enough', like I did with President Taylor," he says. "[I said] 'You cannot have, being a Christian, more than one wife'. I did not do it secretly, I did it publicly. CNN and the BBC were there. They're willing to be confronted in a spiritual way because nobody is dealing with their spirits.

"See, politics doesn't work. Show me one political victory in the last 20 years. Nelson Mandela said to me, 'How did you do it'? I said HE did it.

"There is a spirit within me which they will listen to because they are confronted by the higher spirit - which is the spirit of God, which is in me - in a loving manner. And I am also offering forgiveness."

Kilaria Anand Paul, who describes himself as a "Hindu-born follower of Jesus Christ", was born in 1963 in a small village in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. His parents were reportedly lower-middle class, his father a pharmacist who suffered from depression. Reports say that when Paul was just three years old, his father returned from work with enough sleeping pills to kill his family and himself. Paul's mother pleaded with one of her husband's colleagues to help and he did, not only saving the family but apparently introducing the young boy to Christianity. According to one report, Paul's father became a part-time preacher soon afterwards, and the young boy spent much of his childhood following his father around the Indian countryside listening to him preach.

At the age of 17, Paul went to college, where he became a leader within the communist Naxalite movement, originally known for its calls for social justice but most recently linked to a series of terrorist attacks. At the age of 19, he claims to have had a religious experience of such power that he decided to spend his life spreading the teachings of Christ.

Such endeavour rewarded Paul with huge audiences. During rallies in the Eighties he would speak to crowds of up to 40,000: when he appeared before an audience in Lagos, Nigeria, on 3 November, 2001, he spoke to some three million people. Over three days in Nigeria he says he spoke to around seven million people. The Texas oil billionaire Nelson Bunker Hunt, who until recently served as the co-director of GPI, told The New Republic magazine: "I hesitate to tell people how big these crowds are because they can't comprehend it."

But, if he is going to make it as a preacher and a fundraiser in the US, somewhere not lacking in evangelical preachers both ready and willing to highlight people's sins as well as take their money, Paul realises he will need to persuade people of the benefit of their donations. One of the most prominent features of GPI's website is "Charity City" - a 325,000sq ft facility outside the Indian city of Hyderabad that incorporates an orphanage and school for up to 1,000 children. It also contains a separate facility for widows training to be Little Teresas, women who are encouraged to emulate the Albanian nun.

Paul is convinced of the decency of the American public, but he says his message does not always get through. "They are hearing but not understanding," he says. He says it is vital that poverty be tackled. As it stands, the lack of opportunity in the developing world acts as a recruiting tool for extremists. "If we had done enough before September 11, if we had listened to the experts of the Third World, we could have prevented September 11. We could have stopped Osama bin Laden recruiting tens of thousands of children from the streets of Sudan and Afghanistan because of poverty."

We discuss Iraq, and the way the war has helped draw new recruits to the anti-American cause. He says 90 per cent of people around the world do not understand why the war happened. "Knowing President Bush a little bit - and some of my friends are very close friends with him - and knowing his personal conviction, his work with Christ and all that, and seeing what happened in Iraq, it really doesn't add up," he says.

Is it possible for a Christian to wage such a war, knowing that there would be many civilian casualties? "I am dealing with the same question. In the Old Testament, you see 'tooth for tooth, eye for eye', but in the New Testament you see Jesus asking us to show the other cheek. And so 'can a Christian wage war like President Bush waged against Iraq?' is the question and struggle I have. Have we done enough diplomatically to stop the war? Is there justification for this war? Many people are asking me if it's President Bush's personal war."

But is it possible for a Christian to do this? There is a delay of 10 seconds as Paul organises his thoughts. "If you read the teachings of Jesus it seems impossible," he says. "At the same time, if we would have found the weapons of mass destruction that would have killed millions of people, probably it would have been more justified, according to my other Christian friends." He adds: "Is Saddam a bad guy? One hundred per cent. Are his two sons as evil as you can get? Is it good to remove them? One hundred per cent. But, at the same time, is it justified? You know that is a question I have yet to answer. Especially how could [a] publicly pronouncing Christian cause this? Is it accidental - did they misunderstand? Did they expect this many casualties or did they [do it] just because Saddam caused hundreds of thousands of killings? There is no question that Saddam, if not the worst human being, is one of the worst leaders the world has seen." If Paul is going to truly make it big in the US, he is probably going to have to stop being so honest: both souls and wallets could quickly get shut.

But for now the self-confident KA Paul shows no sign of being quiet. Several days after the interview, he calls me. He enjoyed our conversation, and has been thinking more about whether Bush, as a Christian, should have invaded Iraq. His enthusiasm is infectious. "I am going to write a new chapter about this in my book."