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Foreign Minister

Dr. K.A. Paul may be the world’s most famous evangelist, drawing crowds in millions and ministering to some of the most dangerous men on earth. So why don’t American Christians care?

“When Guy Philippe comes to me with the military clothes, and how many hundreds, I don’t know, of these gunmen--the whole hotel, outside, everywhere is gunmen--and shook my hand at the dinner table and said, ‘I need to meet with you.’ And I said, ‘Let’s go to private in my suite.’ So we went to the suite. Three hours later, he removed his military clothes and laid up all of his guns.” 

Dr. K.A. Paul, the Indian-born Christian evangelical and founder of the U.S.-based Global Peace Initiative (GPI), is seated at a small bistro table at the Regency Club of the Grand Hyatt Washington, sipping his coffee and explaining how he convinced the violent, charismatic leader of Haiti’s rebel forces to turn over a new leaf. “I took him to inside my bedroom. Got him on his knees. Laid hands on him. Prayed for him. Ministered to him. At the same time, I said, ‘Look, do you really want peace in your country, or are you fighting for power?’” If Philippe loved his people, Paul told him, he would abandon threats to seize control of the government and instead follow Jesus’ directive to “show the other cheek.” For three hours, the men engaged in a one-on-one prayer session. “He was in tears,” recalls Paul, with obvious satisfaction. “Immediately, one of my guys walked in and taped it. I said, ‘Now speak. After three hours, what happened?’ He said, ‘I’m now ready to lay down my weapons--follow the path of peace, as [shown to me by] Doctor Paul. I’ve asked him to be my spiritual leader, to guide me, to bring peace to my country.’” 

It’s an unbelievable story, growing progressively more unbelievable as the diminutive, almost wispy Paul details his scolding of the thuggish Philippe. (“I said, ‘Enough is enough. ... One soul is more valuable than all the wealth of the world. You have no right to kill!’”) I’d be inclined to laugh at the increasingly animated minister--his arms waving, dark eyes flashing, neatly trimmed mustache quivering--if reports by the press and other observers (including former U.S. Representative Bob Clement) didn’t support the basic gist of his story. And, while U.S. military pressure clearly swayed the rebels’ decision to disarm, Philippe is on record as having been strongly influenced by his quirky new guru--an odd turn of events that seems to have surprised everyone. Everyone, that is, except Paul, for whom sermonizing to armed goons has become almost commonplace. 

Over the past two decades, Kilari Anand Paul, a self-described “Hindu-born follower of Jesus,” has cultivated a peculiar specialty as spiritual adviser to the scum of the earth. Liberia’s Charles Taylor, Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milosevic, and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein are among the more infamous butchers to talk with Paul about the moral implications of running a brutal, repressive, and occasionally genocidal regime. In fact, Dr. Paul, as everyone calls him (thanks to an honorary degree from Living Word Bible College in Swan River, Manitoba), has counseled scores of corrupt political leaders at all levels of government, as well as warlords, rebels, and terrorists from Mumbai to Manila to Mogadishu. By Paul’s estimate, he has gone mano a mano with the leaders of every significant terrorist and rebel group in the 89 countries where his ministry operates. 

Far from being put off by the wickedness of his flock, Paul’s philosophy seems to be: The blacker the soul, the greater the need for redemption. As the name of his organization suggests, Paul’s aim is to foster global peace, in large part by personally “transforming the lives and changing the hearts” of some of the world’s most ruthless warmongers. It is not a modest goal--then again, Paul is not a modest man. The 40-year-old peace crusader is, in fact, the first to toot his own horn, proffering a laundry list of armed conflicts he claims to have helped resolve or avert in troubled spots like Burundi, the Ivory Coast, Pakistan, and, perhaps most notably, Liberia, where Paul played a key role in coaxing Taylor to step down as president and go into exile last year. 

But, despite such high-profile interventions, Paul remains virtually unknown in the United States--and the anonymity is driving him crazy. It’s not that he craves public acclaim, says Paul (though quite clearly he does). It’s that GPI’s humanitarian work--aiding disaster victims and supporting thousands of orphans and widows throughout the Third World--costs money, and the United States is where the money is. But it’s hard to raise cash when no one has ever heard of you. So, over the past year or so, Paul has tried to up his profile, retaining a big-league p.r. firm to sing his praises; hiring former members of Congress to do the same; splashily retrofitting a Boeing 747, dubbed Global Peace One, for use on relief missions; even recruiting Evander Holyfield to add pizzazz to fund-raising events. 

Thus far, however, the United States remains uninterested. The public face of religion in the United States, Paul and his supporters have found, looks nothing like that of a peculiar, self-promoting Indian minister. Americans tend to prefer their humanitarian and spiritual leaders humble and self-deprecating, à la Jimmy Carter or Billy Graham. Paul, by contrast, is so desperate to convince you of his influence that he can come across as either a liar or a crank. And even those who aren’t turned off by Paul’s self-aggrandizement are often unmoved by his cause. Rescuing widows and orphans may be big news in the Third World, but the subject doesn’t exactly grip the American imagination, which is preoccupied with culture-war standards like abortion, gay rights, and school prayer. Focused as he is on Third World hunger and other apolitical issues that don’t get you on “Crossfire,” Dr. Paul simply may never fit the American image of a Spiritual Leader. But such challenges simply make the indefatigable peace crusader even more determined to try. 

By all accounts, Dr. Paul’s overseas peace rallies are sights to behold. Most take place in Africa or India, where villagers stream in from around the countryside to see, as one Indian paper put it, “the mesmerizing evangelist,” who has become a minor celebrity across much of both continents. A “small” rally is defined as an audience of 10,000 or 20,000. Large rallies stretch upward of a million. (GPI claims its largest was three million attendees at a 2001 event in Lagos, Nigeria.) Surrounding the speakers’ podium, on which Paul is joined by local politicos and traveling dignitaries, bodies crowd together in a sea of humanity. “I hesitate to tell people how big these crowds are, because they can’t comprehend it,” says Texas oil billionaire Nelson Bunker Hunt, who served as co-chair of GPI until recently. Until you see the crowds yourself, you assume the numbers are inflated, agrees Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who traveled to India with Paul in January 2002. “But there were maybe seventy-five thousand, a hundred thousand,” Huckabee says of the rally he attended. “I’m not sure I ever saw that many people except at a major football game.” 

Many of the events include dancing and singing, with choir members numbering in the hundreds. Often, dozens of local street children are brought onstage as Paul challenges families who can afford it to adopt them. And, always, there is a sermon (which can last several hours) in which Paul shares the stories of great peacemakers--Jesus, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and, of course, Dr. K.A. Paul--and calls upon the crowd to accept the gospel of Jesus Christ. GPI supporters who have attended such rallies express awe at the number of souls brought to Jesus, sometimes tens of thousands in one night. 

Of course, it’s hard to know how many of these attendees remain dedicated to Christianity after Paul’s departure. India, in particular, has a tradition of mass conversions, which often have more to do with a rejection of Hinduism’s oppressive caste system than with any spiritual awakening (see Stéphanie Giry, “SOL,” April 26). Even so, there’s little doubt that Paul has amassed an impressive following in many Third World countries. Among his devotees are more than a few political dignitaries, many of whom, as GPI “peace partners,” dedicate a few days each month to attending peace rallies, visiting orphanages, meeting with other leaders, or whatever else Paul has on the agenda. The president of Ethiopia has committed to serving as a GPI peace partner. So has H.D. Deve Gowda, former prime minister of India. In fact, dozens of Indian politicians--including 16 senators--donate time to Paul’s cause, though not solely for humanitarian reasons. “He controls the Indian government over there,” chuckles Walter Harber, an East Tennessee real estate developer and another of GPI’s big funders. “In a town of a million people, he’ll draw seven hundred fifty thousand who are all his fans--and they’ll vote the way he wants them to. The guy is probably the most powerful leader in the Third World,” Harber says with awe. “People just flock to him. If I didn’t know he was a Christian, I’d think he was the Antichrist.” 

All of Paul’s supporters mention the minister’s strange, undefinable charisma. The word “anointed” popped up repeatedly, and at least one adviser compared Paul to the “ravenous bird from the east” that the book of Isaiah prophecies will come in latter days to work God’s will. “He’s just overwhelmed with faith,” says Representative Clement. “He makes things happen that others think, ‘There is no way that can happen.’” 

Paul and his followers are happy to recall his many amazing encounters with remarkable (if often reprehensible) people. There was the time he lectured Yasir Arafat on the evils of sending children to commit suicide, “even if you believe you are doing justice.” Then there was the time, during the Elián González mess, that Paul traveled to Cuba to meet with Fidel Castro, only to back out at the last minute--”Literally, I was in his office,” says Paul--because the Cuban leader would not let Paul use his own translator. In 1999, Paul met with Milosevic during the U.S. aerial assault. And, in 2002, he had phone conversations with Saddam and met personally with Iraqi Vice President Taha Yasin Ramadan in an attempt to avert war with the United States. Paul recalls Ramadan accusing him of being an agent of President Bush. “He was so angry, he literally walked out of the meeting, but I held his hand and pulled him back,” says Paul, who then warned Ramadan, “I am not an agent from America, but I’m telling you about President Bush, what little I know--and many of my friends know him very well.” Unless Iraq immediately took certain steps, he assured Ramadan, there was no question that the United States would invade. 

Unsurprisingly, Paul’s peacemaking efforts often end in disappointment. But his near-pathological stubbornness occasionally pays off. By far the most oft-cited--and, arguably, the most successful--of Paul’s peace odysseys was his mission to Liberia. As Paul tells the story, he became involved in the situation at the request of several Liberian bishops who approached him while he was in Nigeria. A late-night phone call was arranged to President Taylor, who, after a bout of long-distance praying, invited Paul to visit. There followed a month of intense, marathon counseling sessions, in which the minister lectured the despot on his myriad sins. At one meeting, attended by Clement, Paul demanded that Taylor, a practicing polygamist, renounce all but his first-wed wife. “I about died!” recalls Clement with a laugh. “I thought, ‘We’re gonna get locked up now, and I’ll never get out of Liberia.’” But Taylor acquiesced. And, although one or two gun-toting rebels issued the occasional death threat to members of Paul’s entourage, GPI’s Liberian crusade could be considered a smashing success. After weeks of foot-dragging, Taylor resigned and headed for Nigeria, a move for which he has publicly credited Paul. And, while no one can predict how long Taylor will be able to resist causing trouble in his native country, he and his new guru are burning up the phone lines, often speaking several times a day. “We’ve probably had a hundred and fifty phone conversations including this week,” says Paul, assuring me, “Everybody knows this because our calls are tapped.” 

From the start, Paul has charted an unorthodox course to success. He was born in 1963 to a lower-middle-class family of Hindus in a small village in the southeast Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Paul’s father was a pharmacist who earned enough to provide a comfortable life for his wife and three children but nonetheless suffered from severe anxiety and depression. When Paul was three years old, his father brought home a mass of sleeping pills in preparation for the family’s collective suicide. Paul’s mother begged one of her husband’s colleagues to intervene, and, as Paul tells it, the colleague saved not only his family’s lives but also their eternal souls by introducing them to Jesus Christ. Soon thereafter, Paul’s father became a part-time preacher, and, for much of his youth, Paul traveled the countryside with his dad, spreading the gospel of Jesus. 

At 17, Paul entered college and became caught up in the Naxalite movement, an outgrowth of the Communist Party of India that sought to violently overthrow the government. (Popular on campuses during the 1960s and 1970s because of their message of social justice, the Naxalites have become an increasingly fringe movement, whose killing of innocents has earned them a reputation more as terrorists than reformers. Today, Paul credits his experience as a student-leader in the group with giving him intimate knowledge of terrorism and of the futility of pursuing change through violence.) 

In the summer of 1983, the 19-year-old Paul had a religious epiphany--a vision of thousands of unsaved souls toppling into the fiery lake of Hell. It was then that he renounced violence and dedicated his life to spreading Jesus’ message of peace. For the next several years, Paul traveled throughout India, preaching to small groups of ten or 20 people. Blending tenets of Christianity with elements of social reform--including relentless criticism of government corruption, the dowry system, the caste system, and religious fanaticism in general--Paul’s message began to earn him national attention, not all of it positive. At one point, he claims, he was beaten and left for dead by a group of religious extremists. By the late ‘80s, Paul was being invited to speak at statewide religious rallies with crowds of up to 30,000 or 40,000. It was there that Paul met many of the mayors, governors, legislators, and other Indian politicos with whom he is friends today. In early 1997, G.M.C. Balayogi, a member of the Indian House of Representatives attended one of Paul’s rallies and committed himself to aiding the young crusader. (Himself an untouchable, Balayogi was especially moved by Paul’s denunciation of the caste system.) Later that year, Balayogi, as head of the Telegu Desam Party, became speaker of the House and promptly began introducing his spiritual guru to other world leaders. “He started writing letters to all one hundred ninety-one countries in the U.N., introducing me to all the presidents and prime ministers,” says Paul with pride. And, until his death in 2002, Balayogi helped arrange meetings between Paul and various leaders, even inviting the minister along on visits with heads of state like Castro or Milosevic. 

Paul’s introduction to the United States came in 1989, when members of the Indian-American community arranged for him to speak to congregations in five cities. Those invitations spawned other invitations, and soon Paul was preaching in some of America’s largest mega-churches. As in India, the minister never missed an opportunity to expand his network of friends. While speaking in Los Angeles, Paul became acquainted with the late Reverend E.V. Hill, who spiritually counseled Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and Bush I. Through Hill, Paul met Nelson Bunker Hunt, who is perhaps best known for attempting to corner the silver market in 1980. Through Hunt, Paul gained entrée to pretty much every important businessman and politician in Texas--if not the entire southern United States. And so the Rolodex grew. 

Early in his ministry, Paul often could not afford food, much less shelter. So it’s hardly surprising that today--as friend and counselor to numerous well-known personages; founder of both an international humanitarian group (GPI) and an aggressive missionary operation called Gospel to the Unreached Millions; financial savior of tens of thousands of poor women and children (GPI runs several large orphanages throughout India); and, of course, proud owner of “the one and only VIP 747 in the world!”--he is eager for people to know what he has accomplished. 

So far, however, word of Paul’s Third World success hasn’t exactly swept the United States. Despite having settled his ministry and family in Houston a decade ago, Paul’s name typically prompts the response, “K.A. who?” The failure of his adopted homeland to appreciate him is a sore spot for the ambitious crusader, whose reflexive self-promotion borders on parody. (In recounting how he uses the story of Mother Teresa as a teaching tool, Paul begins, “This was an ordinary woman, a hundred pounds, a seventeen-year-old Albanian little girl who came out to India and spent seventy years touching one orphan at a time. She didn’t build the world’s largest orphanage like K.A. Paul, but she built one here and one there.”) 

Ego aside, Paul understands that his lack of name recognition in the United States is undermining his ministry, for the simple reason that it limits his fund-raising ability. Much of GPI’s mission, says Paul, involves uniting the haves with the have-nots--and no country has quite as many pro-Jesus haves as the United States. But Paul is not the head of a church, which could provide him with a financial base of support, and he refuses to pass the collection plate at his rallies. Moreover, unlike Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell, Paul doesn’t have a TV congregation to which he can appeal--nor does he want one, insisting that televangelism is not what he should spend his time on. So, up to this point, Paul has relied on rich, humanitarian-minded individuals to fund GPI. Rather than collecting $20 or $30 from thousands of people, he collects $20,000 or $30,000 from a few. Currently, 85 percent of Paul’s work is supported by a core group of a dozen American businessmen, many of whom sit on GPI’s board and brainstorm additional sources of funding. In part, this means introducing Paul to other rich folks. But, when trying to convince their millionaire chums to hand over a fat check, GPI’s backers often hit the “K.A. who?” hurdle. “Honestly, it’s one of our biggest frustrations,” admits Dave McQuade, a Hollywood-based entertainment consultant who has become Paul’s closest adviser. 

Paul has started experimenting with ways to raise his public profile, but thus far he has had limited success. Part of the trouble is that his work with the poor doesn’t lend itself to the sort of left-right political spats that many religious leaders use to gain ink and airtime. Compounding the problem, say supporters, is that Americans just aren’t interested in what Paul does. “Most Americans don’t care about Third World countries--the only news is when there is war or bloodshed,” says Juda Engelmayer, a New York-based p.r. consultant who has represented GPI in the past. 

More specifically, the bulk of American evangelicals do not consider poverty--even in their own country--a top priority. In a recent poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, evangelicals were asked, “What’s the most important thing that concerns you?” The number-one response was moral values (with abortion overwhelmingly the defining political concern). Thus, it’s hardly surprising that evangelical leaders like Robertson and Falwell rode to prominence on issues like abortion, gay rights, and school prayer. 

Similarly, the international issues that mobilize conservative Christians often reflect their domestic priorities. During the Reagan years, right-wing evangelicals embraced the Gipper’s fierce anti-communism as the key to preserving the American (read: Christian) way of life. More recently, the violence in Israel and the persecution of Christians in places like China and Sudan have become pet causes for activists like Gary Bauer. But, thus far, the plight of poor widows in Calcutta has yet to ignite a mass movement among this nation’s most devout. (This is not to say that evangelicals don’t contribute to overseas relief missions. But, when they do, it’s often through programs run by their own churches, meaning that Paul finds himself competing with homegrown groups for members’ dollars.) 

The stark racial division of Christian America poses another hurdle for Paul: As a foreign-born Indian, he lacks an obvious constituency. Thirty-six years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. lamented that the most segregated hour in America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning. That divide shows no signs of closing. A recent study by researchers at Rice University showed that only 8 percent of all U.S. churches are multiracial (meaning that no single group constitutes more than 80 percent of the congregation). Whites are accustomed to following white spiritual leaders. Blacks are accustomed to following black leaders. A culturally strange “Hindu follower of Jesus” is a tough sell. 

Looking for a little professional help last year, GPI retained the services of Rubenstein Associates, the Manhattan p.r. giant that handles the likes of Rupert Murdoch and David Letterman. (And, once upon a time, The New Republic.) But that move backfired, making Paul and GPI look distastefully hungry for publicity. McQuade recalls one news producer who was ready to hit the road with Paul--until she learned he was represented by Rubenstein. At that point, says McQuade, the show dismissed him as a media hound. 

Trying another tactic, Paul hired a dozen former political candidates who had been defeated in the 2002 elections--including a handful of ex-congressmen--to help open doors in Washington. (In addition to seeking private funders, Paul has his eye on government grant dollars, possibly through usaid.) The experiment is still in progress, and Paul enthusiastically reports that several lawmakers have expressed interest in tagging along on future relief missions. But politicians are fickle creatures with short attention spans, unlikely to waste much time or political capital championing an unknown, decidedly quirky Indian minister with designs on saving the world. Of the handful of members of Congress that Paul mentioned having spoken with, none wanted to chat about GPI. One had his spokesman explain that the congressman had changed his mind about traveling with Paul. One denied ever having heard of him.  

More recently, Paul has turned to perhaps the most reliable strategy for getting Americans’ attention: recruit a celebrity pitchman. Since January, Evander Holyfield, who met Paul in 1997, has been accompanying the minister on both international peacemaking trips and domestic fund-raising ones. When I phoned him one Friday in late March, Holyfield was in New York with Paul, trying to hook up with some big-money funders. But even traveling with (as Paul repeatedly stresses) “the only four-time heavyweight champion in the world” does not guarantee access. “We’re supposed to be meeting some important people that Doctor Paul’s supposed to introduce me to,” Holyfield explained. “But they’re out of town right about now.” No matter: An undeterred Holyfield and Paul were heading from New York to Dallas and then maybe to the West Coast. “We’re going to go all over the U.S. right now,” said Holyfield gamely. “I’m not in training, so I’m trying to go as many places as possible.” 

Ultimately, however, the biggest barrier to Paul’s success may be Paul himself. As fabulous as the minister is at wooing the masses in Kenya and Andhra Pradesh, he is a lousy ambassador in the United States, apt to come across as simultaneously arrogant and untrustworthy. “He’s a very intense guy, and his stories, when you listen to them, are not believable at first,” says Engelmayer, who, until recently, was Paul’s rep at Rubenstein. Paul’s preference for speaking in absolutes (meeting with every terrorist and rebel group in 89 countries, building the world’s largest orphanage, drawing every politician in a region to his rallies) suggests a tendency toward exaggeration, even when the claims are basically true. He must be grilled on every story in order to separate narrative embellishment (he once “beat up” the head of his college) from reality (he threw a couple of punches at the guy), and, even then, it’s wise to confirm with outside sources. For naturally skeptical journalists, all this is hardly worth the trouble for a story about some odd little preacher no one has ever heard of anyway. 

And, even when people do believe Paul, they often don’t like him. “It seems like he’s just bragging,” says Engelmayer, noting that Paul frequently shows up at meetings and interviews with a briefcase full of glowing testimonials and photos of himself with important people. In part, say supporters, Paul is trying, helpfully, to provide documentation for his claims. “But it doesn’t seem right for a man of God to be coming across as so arrogant,” says Engelmayer. “It just doesn’t appeal.” 

Harber, among others, sees the problem as cultural--a by-product of Paul’s obsessive, guilt-inducing focus on global poverty. “He just feels like there’s so much waste over here. We spend a lot of money doing things like building buildings and not reaching out to do other things,” like help the poor. But, unlike your average American, says Harber, Paul doesn’t know how to camouflage his disapproval. “He’s so aggressive, he’s like an animal.” If he finds out you’ve got a swank vacation home, “he wants you to put up a for sale sign right now and give the money to him.” We’ve told him again and again that rich folks don’t like to be lectured on how they’re misusing their money, says Harber, adding, “It just makes me sick that we’ve lost a lot of great donors over here because he offends them.” Paul doesn’t mean to offend, says Engelmayer, “He just doesn’t know how to speak the way Americans are used to hearing people talk.” 

Paul isn’t worried. Eventually, he figures, evidence of the work God is doing through him will become too big to ignore. In one rambling breath he lays out a possible storyline: “Why is this village boy, who failed tenth grade two times and couldn’t find ten dollars at age seventeen, and who lived on the streets for seven years--between ‘83 and ‘89--who was left for dead and beaten with the broken ribs, a man who could not accomplish anything in life, go from a broken bike to the one and only Global Peace One, which, in itself, is [a] front-page story for every newspaper in this country?” Besides, says Paul, no great peacemaker is appreciated in his own time. “It took sixty years for Mother Teresa to be known,” he reminds me. And the only reason Gandhi is so revered, he asserts, “is because he died in 1948. People were not talking about him then.” So, if Americans need “to take their own time and find out what we do, like they did in eighty-nine countries,” so be it. “America is not my place, at least for now,” says Paul with a shrug. “But maybe someday.”