Agape member says accusations are 'malicious lies'
June 30, 2010
LIKE many suburban couples, Raphael and Patricia Azariah work and study hard, raise their children and attend church every Sunday.
Their religious beliefs, however, have thrust the parents of two into controversy - because they are members of the Agape Ministries Church.
Yesterday, the couple spoke to The Advertiser to refute "cruel and malicious" claims they promised their daughters in marriage to older men.
They further denied accusations they allowed the girls, aged eight and six, to undergo firearms training. The couple detailed the persecution they have suffered in the wake of police raids on Agape properties that netted guns and ammunition.
"I am not a nutter or a crazy-farm type of person," Mr Azariah said.
"I am a person that believes in God, I am a Christian, I am a man who takes the Bible seriously.
"Now I have lost my job - we have no employment and no income, and I've lost all that work as a result of what one can only describe as malicious lies."
The police raids, in May, triggered an avalanche of speculation about Agape Ministries.
Former members and opponents dubbed it a cult, saying Pastor Rocco Leo defrauded millions from his followers to buy a South Pacific island.
Detractors claimed Leo told his parishioners the world would end after microchips are implanted into everyone by the end of 2012.
Mr Azariah's mother, Lesley Baligod, told reporters her son and daughter-in-law had "betrothed" their children to much older men in the church.
Yesterday, Mr and Mrs Azariah spoke in the presence of their lawyer, Craig Caldicott, and two fellow church members.
Mr Azariah - whose chosen last name means "the Lord is my helper" - joined the church in 1993.
He said there was no truth to any of the allegations.
"Agape Ministries has never been a doomsday cult," he said.
"It has never been preached, in our church, that the world is going to end. That's contrary to our beliefs, and to the Bible which says God has established the Earth forever.
"I do not believe the world is going to end, and definitely not in 2012."
He said "disgruntled former members of the church" had taken that concept "from movies and the Mayan calendar".
"And I've never heard anything about an island in Vanuatu," he said.
He said talk of microchips was a "misunderstanding" of comments made during Bible study classes.
"People talked about all the media coverage around companies and governments using chips in phones, credit cards and to identify people," he said.
"I am aware that some governments may do that, I know that there's tracking devices, but I don't particularly care.
"In Revelations it talks about `the Mark of the Beast', and it's left for people to interpret that in their own way.
"But it has never been taught, in the Agape church, that people are going to be microchipped and that's not a church doctrine."
What had most hurt his family, he said, were the allegations about his daughters Amanda and Danielle.
"It is a load of hogwash, and it is without a doubt probably one of the most cruel things I've ever heard," he said.
The couple were accused of letting the girls take part in weapons training at firing ranges on Agape property.
"Neither of my daughters have ever held a gun - they would not know how to," Mr Azariah said.
"I am not aware of any firing range operated or owned by Agape Ministries."
Media reports led to the Azariahs being investigated by Families SA. "We were totally exonerated," he said.
Mr Azariah said he had given 10 per cent of his earnings to the church willingly.
"I believe in it, it wasn't compulsory," he said. He blamed the rumours on former church members who disagreed with Rocco Leo.
He believed one of those former members had provided information to his mother. "The fundamental tenor of the Agape Church is that Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected - we believe in love and forgiveness," he said.
"It's for that reason I still love my mother and forgive her for what she's brought up against us."
A University of Adelaide graduate, Mr Azariah made his living as a music teacher at an Adelaide school until the church came under fire.
"I probably had about 35 students, and taught another five privately.
"Now I have been asked to take unpaid leave until all of this is sorted out.
"My wife, Patricia, had been studying horticulture, but because we currently have no income she is looking for employment."
He said his daughters had "fortunately" not been teased, and had the support of their school and peers.
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