Pat Robertson's excellent African diamond adventure in focus at TIFF
Where some see suffering, others see opportunity.
When the Rwandan massacre of 1994 erupted with bloody fury in that tiny east African country, leaving 800,000 dead, an estimated 1 million people fled into Zaire, today’s Democratic Republic of Congo – triggering an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.
Never a slouch, American televangelist Pat Robertson was quick to take to the airwaves. The unofficial leader of the Christian Right appealed to viewers of his Christian Broadcasting Network to heed God’s will.
“You must be obedient to what He says,” the smiling, silver-haired preacher implored. “So go to your phones.”
And so they did.
And lo, Robertson’s charity, “Operation Blessing,” was soon swimming in cash.
But what his well-intentioned if gullible followers didn’t know, was that the relief planes they financed and fueled, were really being used to haul food and dredging equipment to Robertson’s African diamond operations – more than 1,000 kilometers distant from those in need.
Yes, a few flights did touch down in Goma, the cauldron of the crisis. But seven times as many went in search of diamonds.
You have to wonder what Jesus might say about that.
In a new documentary, “Mission Congo,” which opens at the Toronto Film Festival Friday, filmmakers Lara Zizic and David Turner, enshrine Robertson as the star of their show – even though he refused to be interviewed. Nevertheless, his smiling, praying, imploring face is all over this film, thanks to the magic of archival footage.
Interspersed with those appeals are testimonials from Robertson’s former chief pilot, and others, telling what really happened.
So, one might ask, ‘Robertson was actually a friend of Africa?’
Well yes, as this film documents. He befriended, did business with, or went on tour with some of the biggest and baddest strongmen Africa has ever known – and for whom God will doubtless have special corners in hell prepared: Zaire’s late and notorious Mobutu Sese Seko might already be there; imprisoned war criminals Charles Taylor of Liberia, and Rwandan massacre master-mind Theoneste Bagosora will soon be on their way.
None of Robertson’s diamond-seeking-while-appealing-for-relief-money would ever have come to light, had it not for journalist Bill Sizemore’s investigative work for The Virginia Pilot newspaper. He is featured prominently.
But the filmmakers raise the bigger question: what else is being done in Jesus’ name with the $3.5 billion in charitable donations that Americans hand over every year?
Bill Schiller has held bureau postings for the Toronto Star in Johannesburg, Berlin, London and Beijing. He is a NNA and Amnesty International Award winner, and a Harvard Nieman Fellow from the class of '06. Follow him on Twitter @wschiller