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Undeterred by critics, faith healer Benny Hinn has built a following

Posted: Friday, April 26, 2002

GRAPEVINE, Texas (AP) -- If Benny Hinn puts on a remarkable television show, the view from his side of the camera is even more incredible.

Looking into viewers' homes recently, the evangelist spied a bald, overweight man with a heart problem. Wearing a yellow shirt.

Hinn said he could see the man walking away from his TV, resisting appeals to donate during a Trinity Broadcasting Network ''Praise-a-thon.''

''Come back,'' Hinn begged. ''If you will come back and make that pledge, God will heal your heart tonight.''

It was vintage Hinn -- charismatic, even outrageous, melding the promise of healing with support for the network that broadcasts his show.

Such claims, of course, are the hallmark of some TV evangelists. But while others like Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker and Robert Tilton have fallen from grace over the past two decades, Hinn plows ahead, relentlessly seeking souls and money.

Like some colleagues, he embraces his worldwide followers who say he has cured them, like heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield, who has credited Hinn with correcting his heart problem.

For the most part, he brushes off scrutiny, though not always gracefully. He once wished aloud for a ''Holy Ghost machine gun'' to blow off the heads of his critics, who object to everything from his unverifiable healing claims to his perfectly coifed hair.

''I think he's a great showman who understands how to utilize both media and the stage in order to manipulate the audience,'' said Stephen Winzenburg, a communications professor at Grand View College in Des Moines, Iowa, who monitors evangelists' television broadcasts.

Hinn's ''This is Your Day'' television program appears on the Trinity Broadcasting Network and airs in 190 countries.

His crusades around the world draw thousands who hope the diminutive preacher will zap them with power he says he absorbs from the graves of dead faith healers. The lucky ones end up on stage, where with a motion of Hinn's hand they are overcome, dropping lifelessly into the arms of a ''catcher.''

''I've known him for many years, and he's doing a world of good with hundreds of thousands of people,'' said Freda Lindsay, co-founder of Christ for the Nations, a Dallas-based church-building ministry.

Lindsay, 88, shares Hinn's belief in faith healing and said prayer cured her of tuberculosis when she was 24. ''Benny Hinn is very sincere,'' she said. ''I would vouch for him that he's a man of God. He's not a phony.''

While Swaggart's and Bakker's high-flying ministries were leveled by sex scandals, and Tilton eventually was brought down by reports of false promises and a legal battle with his first wife, Hinn has tripped over no such obstacles.

''He has a charm and a charisma that some of the other television evangelists don't have,'' Winzenburg said. ''He's no threat. He's someone people feel that they can approach.''

The man who was the white-suited inspiration for Steve Martin in the film ''Leap of Faith'' has been conducting public healings for nearly 30 years.

Benedictus Hinn, 49, was born in Israel to a Greek father and Armenian mother, according to the 1999 book ''Religious Leaders of America.'' His mother named him after Patriarch Benedictus of the Greek Orthodox Church.

As a boy, he was embarrassed by a stuttering problem -- an impediment he says was later healed by God. He attended Roman Catholic schools and marked his first religious experience at age 11.

''I saw Jesus walk into my bedroom,'' he writes in ''He Touched Me,'' his 1999 autobiography. ''He was wearing a robe that was whiter than white and a deep red mantle was draped over His shoulders.''

The family later moved to Toronto, Ontario, where he was ''saved,'' an announcement that so baffled relatives that his father booked him an appointment with a psychiatrist. The defining moment in his life came in 1973 when he attended a service in Pittsburgh by the late faith healer Kathryn Kuhlman.

It is often suggested that Hinn has fashioned himself in her image, and he frequently mentions her influence. He has written a book about Kuhlman's life but says he never knew her personally.

''He's copied her act almost to the letter,'' said Joe Nickell, author of ''Looking for a Miracle.'' ''She wore white gowns with gold trim. He wears white suits with gold jewelry.''

In ''He Touched Me,'' Hinn writes that seeing Kuhlman simply pointed him in the right direction. That path led back to Toronto, where by 1974 he was conducting his own healing services.

He moved his operations to Orlando, Fla., in 1983, where he married Suzanne Harthern, daughter of an Assemblies of God minister (Hinn calls himself a Pentecostal). He rose rapidly to become one of the best-known healing evangelists.

In 1999, he moved his corporate headquarters to Dallas-Fort Worth, noting that the ministry's legal and accounting firms were already in the area. Hinn lives in Southern California, home of his World Media Center, which houses his television production facilities.

Neither Hinn nor ministry representatives responded to numerous interview requests made through his World Healing Center Church Inc., his headquarters in Grapevine.

About 200 people work at the office, located along a busy freeway just a few miles from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Inside the unadorned building, a hallway is lined with large pictures showing the healer in action.

Soon after the move, Hinn announced plans for a 50-acre spiritual healing theme park near Texas Stadium in Irving, home of the Dallas Cowboys, and encouraged donations for it. But a spokeswoman for Irving's zoning department said recently the ministry never submitted any plan.

Hinn has not joined the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, a sort of Christian Better Business Bureau to which evangelists such as Billy Graham belong. The council assesses the financial integrity of Christian organizations that join it.

Nor has Hinn publicly acknowledged his salary, though he told CNN in 1997 that his yearly income including book royalties was somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million. A spokesman has said Hinn generates about $60 million a year in donations.

Once questioned about driving a Mercedes, he answered: ''Where in the Bible does it say I have to drive a Honda?''

Skeptics' objections go beyond big-time fund-raising. They question his grandiose pronouncements, his motives and his so-called healings, which they say are potentially harmful for sick people who abandon conventional medical treatment. Hinn says he encourages people to keep taking their medicine and seeing doctors.

''He's a false prophet. He banks on the fact that people are going to forget what he has previously said,'' said Hank Hanegraaff, who heads the California-based Christian Research Institute and is host of radio's ''Bible Answer Man.''

Hanegraaff notes that Hinn claimed that the world would end by 1999 and Cuban President Fidel Castro would die in the 1990s.

Hinn, who once said women originally were designed to give birth out of their sides, is accustomed to having his declarations ridiculed.

''I do admit there have been times when I have made a statement that was incorrect,'' Hinn once wrote. ''Because we are continually growing in the Lord, preachers and lay people alike must be open to the Lord's correction.

''However, I do not believe it is right when a minister corrects his theology -- or his view on a point of Scripture -- and the critics continue to bring up that same subject.''

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On the Net:

http://www.bennyhinn.org



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