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Politics, diplomacy and the church

Spotlight on Bishop Neil C. Ellis
  • Bishop Neil Ellis (standing foreground)

CANDIA DAMES
NG News Editor
candia@nasguard.com

Published: Jun 06, 2011

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A U.S. Embassy official claimed in a cable penned in 2003 that Bishop Neil C. Ellis — who is repeatedly described in diplomatic documents as Perry Christie’s spiritual adviser — remarked that the then prime minister was not a “true man of God” although he was trying to be religious.

The American also wrote that at a meeting with Ellis at his Mount Tabor Baptist Church, he also remarked that Hubert Ingraham, at the time former prime minister, was definitely “not a man of God” even if he does attend church.

When we sat down with Ellis a few days ago at Mount Tabor to discuss the cables that mentioned his name, Ellis denied most of the claims documented by U.S. diplomats.

But it is the claim regarding his purported comment on Christie and Ingraham’s spirituality that he seemed most taken aback by.

“I don’t qualify to determine who is a man of God and who is not a man of God,” he told The Nassau Guardian.

“…For me to say I think Christie is a pretender would be very hypocritical of me because I’ve always said publicly and I would say again, I believe Perry Christie is one of the greatest humanitarians I’ve ever met.”

A read of at least two cables shows that while Ellis was growing his church, American diplomats were placing the spotlight on him and his relationship with Christie in a major way.

“Quite a bit of it surprises me,” said Ellis, when asked about what his general impression was of what the Americans attributed to him.

According to the cables, obtained by The Nassau Guardian through WikiLeaks, despite not being a member of the government, Ellis wielded considerable influence in the Christie administration, as did businessman Franklyn Wilson.

One of the cables, which was classified by then Deputy Chief of Mission Robert Witajewksi, said,  “Ellis openly uses his pulpit in one of Nassau's largest and fastest growing churches to advance the PLP's political agenda, and by allying himself so closely with Christie, has surpassed many of his more established (and perhaps more respectable) religious brethren in influence.”

The name at the end of that particular cable is Richard Blankenship, who at the time was United States ambassador to The Bahamas.

Ellis told The Guardian he was not well liked by Blankenship because he had made a statement about the involvement of diplomats in the local affairs of a country.

He said it arouses curiosity that the Americans want to know everything that is happening on every level in the Bahamas.

 

‘A CONTROVERSIAL FIGURE’

 

The Americans documented two meetings they say they had with Ellis at his church in Pinewood Gardens.

Ellis told The Nassau Guardian he recalled at least one of those meetings, but he remembered it being very informal with no detailed discussion about Christie or Ingraham.

According to one of the cables, on December 2, 2003, a U.S. diplomat paid a courtesy call on Ellis, described as “hard to pin down” and “charismatic”.

“During the nearly two-hour meeting, Ellis described the enterprise his parish has become,” the cable said.

“He also outlined his role as the local Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, of Bahamian politics — the one visit that all aspiring politicians must make in order to confirm their legitimacy.”

Ellis totally dismissed this claim when he spoke with The Nassau Guardian.

“Why would any sensible, logically thinking person make a statement like that?” he asked

The cable added: “Ellis has come far, from a humble background, mentored and supported by prominent businessman Frankie Wilson, with whom he maintains a close personal and business relationship.”

The American diplomat wrote in 2003 that conventional wisdom holds that Ingraham had sealed his fate by displaying arrogance toward the religious leadership while he was prime minister.

“The electorate of the Bahamas is devout, and the church leaders refused to remain silent after the former PM had expressed views antithetical to religious conservatives, such as welcoming to port a cruise liner catering to gay clientele and advocating for constitutional reform targeted toward improving women’s rights,” the diplomat also wrote.

According to the diplomat who wrote the cable on the heels of the December 2, 2002 meeting, Ellis described “a strange ritual” whereby Christie had sought a meeting with him over a several week period as he was gearing up for the 2002 election campaign.

The cable said: “Ellis kept rebuffing [Christie’s] request, offering him only a 10 minute slot.

“Finally, however, Ellis offered [Christie] the opportunity to travel with him on a religious speaking tour in the U.S., promising that if [Christie] attended three of his sermons, he would be available to counsel  [Christie] throughout the tour.

“Thus, the two men spent many intense hours together, during which time Ellis looked into [Christie’s] soul and concluded that [Christie] has religious inclinations, but is ‘not yet there’.”

But Ellis said this could not be further from the truth.

“I can’t look into a person’s soul,” he told The Nassau Guardian.  “I’m not the savior of the world.  Jesus is.”

The cable said though Christie was not one of Ellis’ regular parishioners, since the 2002 election, he had attended from time to time, as did all but three cabinet ministers.

An embassy official said in another cable after reportedly meeting with Ellis in late May 2002 that the bishop had expressed his desire for closer relations with the embassy, bemoaned his treatment in the press and offered a fascinating, intimate account of how he came to publicly endorse Christie in the last election.

The official said that as Wilson did in a separate meeting, Ellis unconvincingly denied having or wanting any real influence.  Both men were described as “powerbrokers” as it regards the PLP — a claim Ellis laughed at as he denied it to the Guardian.

The embassy official described Ellis as one of the Bahamas’ most controversial figures.

The cable said:  “He publicly endorsed Perry Christie during the 2002 campaign and reportedly told his congregation from the pulpit during a religious service that they must support Christie if they wished to remain members of his church.”

The diplomat also wrote that Ellis also held a huge religious revival featuring a renowned U.S. evangelist that was a magnet for criticism about the reported “greediness” of its fundraising appeal.

“Establishment religious figures now sometimes preface fund-raising remarks by noting that the funds ‘will not be used to build a vacation house in Bimini’ to distinguish themselves from the self-proclaimed bishop,” the cable said.

“The press hounds him constantly about his flamboyant personal lifestyle and open political preferences.

“Ellis was another protégé of (the late former prime minister) Sir Lynden Pindling, who identified him as a promising young man growing up on the small island of Bimini and brought him to Nassau to complete his education.”

The diplomat wrote that Ellis is affiliated with the Full Gospel Baptist Church headquartered in New Orleans, and is its “bishop” for international churches, theoretically having all Full Gospel Baptist churches in The Bahamas under his leadership.

“Prime Minister Christie has openly referred to Ellis as his spiritual adviser, and many Bahamians assume that his influence runs deep within the administration,” the cable said.

 

ENDORSING CHRISTIE

 

In the cable that came out of the May 2002 meeting with Bishop Ellis, the diplomat goes into amazing details about what was allegedly observed.

For instance, the cable said the embassy official was met by the first of Ellis’ personal assistants upon arrival, and was passed on to the second, who entertained him while Ellis finished a meeting with his seven associate pastors.

According to the cable, Ellis then received the official in his “nicely appointed, bordering on lavish, but not quite passing over into poor taste, office.”

“He was dressed in a loud magenta clerical shirt with gold and diamond cufflinks, a thick gold chain, several large gold rings and a gold Rolex watch,” the embassy official wrote.

“Ellis is a thin, energetic man of middling height, in his early 40s.  He is married and has three adopted daughters.” (Ellis said he does not have three adopted daughters).

Ellis also strongly denied the American diplomat’s characterization of him.

In fact, he said he never owned a Rolex watch or diamond cufflinks in his life.

“Anybody who knows me knows that I am not given to much jewelry,” added Ellis, now 50.

When The Guardian visited him, he was wearing his gold bishop’s cross around his neck, his wedding band and a wristwatch (definitely not a Rolex).

In fact, Ellis said he shops for $10 watches at Bijoux Terner in the Atlanta airport and has one watch that is a little more expensive that was a gift from someone in the ministry.

Ellis said he wears his bishop’s ring only at special services — a fact later confirmed separately by his associate pastors and assistant who had not been privy to his earlier discussion with The Guardian.

They all said they have never seen the bishop with any Rolex watches and that he barely wears jewelry.

The cable alleges that Ellis described “the remarkable story about how he came to endorse Perry Christie in the 2002 elections.”

The diplomat wrote:  “According to Ellis, he barely knew Christie before the run up to the 2002 election.

“After that time, he says Christie began seeking an appointment with him, saying he needed to speak with him for several hours.

“Ellis says that he kept putting Christie off, both because he didn’t have that time to spare and because he had a bad initial impression of him.”

According to the cable, Ellis said this bad opinion dated from the PLP leadership battle between Christie and Dr. Bernard Nottage.

“Nottage was a friend and former congregation member of Ellis and harbored a lot of ill will toward Christie because of his loss,” the diplomat wrote.

“Christie was persistent in his pursuit of Ellis, whose church membership has definite PLP leanings.”

The cable added:  “Finally, according to Ellis, he agreed to take Christie along with him on an evangelical trip to the U.S., promising that if Christie attended all the services he preached at, Ellis would give him the time in between to listen to his appeal.

“Ellis said that when given the opportunity, Christie and Ellis spoke for 13 hours straight, about both secular and spiritual matters and that Ellis progressively became more convinced that Christie had been ‘sent by God’ to lead the Bahamas.

“The meeting ended, according to Ellis, in a scene reminiscent of the Biblical story of Samuel’s anointing of Saul, with Christie coming around the table they were seated at, going to his knees and requesting a blessing from Bishop Ellis.

“At the time, Ellis reported, the spirit came upon him and told him that he had to endorse Christie.”

The cable also said:  “Ellis, on the one hand, denied having or wanting any political influence with Christie, but on the other hand went to great lengths to explain how close their relationship is and how often Christie calls on him for spiritual guidance.

“For example, Ellis recounted that Christie had presented him with the names of his Cabinet nominees before they were announced and asked him to pray over them and give his opinion.”

But Ellis told The Guardian that the official’s characterization of these events is “totally false”.

“First of all, I can’t say I had a bad impression of Mr. Christie before I met him,” Ellis said.

“But it is true I didn’t know him that well (prior to 2002).  All I knew of him was his public life.

“As it relates to Mr. Christie seeking my anointing, that is totally false.  I don’t remember him ever saying that to me and I don’t remember saying that to anybody.”

Ellis said it is true that Christie traveled with him more than once.

“The first trip he attended with me, he said he just wanted to talk with me and spend a little time with me,” the bishop said.

“My office let him know what my schedule was and when they told him of a particular trip that was going on he asked if he could go and I had no objections because people go on trips with me from time to time.

“I did say to him since he was a politician that I would prefer him not to travel alone with me, so he brought two of his other colleagues with him.”

Ellis said the trip was to Atlanta.  He also recalled another occasion where Christie traveled with him to Baltimore, Maryland.

“I don’t see that as an unusual situation,” he said of the trips.

Ellis also suggested it was laughable to write that he spoke to Christie for 13 hours straight.

“Just think about that,” he said.

“I do know that in the 2002 election, I was very up front with my support for Mr. Christie.  I don’t believe that if you have a conviction you have to be secretive about it.

“…I felt at that time this was the man to lead our country and I was proven to be right at the time.

“To say he was sent by God to lead the country, I don’t know if any of us could be that bold.”

Ellis also said he had no recollection of Christie ever getting on his knees to be anointed by him.

“If the person (the embassy official) wasn’t even clear about what I was wearing, they were putting things on me that were not on my person, then I don’t how much more attention to pay to anything that was said,” he said.

 

MULTIPLE ATTACKS

 

According to the May 2002 cable, Ellis claimed that ever since Mount Tabor started to grow and he began to be seen as a successful pastor, he has come under attack by some people, including other pastors, who are jealous of his success.

As a result, Ellis claims he has been unfairly vilified in the press, particularly the scandal-mongering tabloid The Punch, the diplomat wrote.

“Ellis says that during one stretch The Punch printed negative articles about him in 95 consecutive editions.

“…In addition, Ellis has received heavy criticism for the large salary he draws (reportedly a tax-free $180,000 a year), and his penchant for luxurious living.

“Recently, attention has focused on the impressive house he is building for himself in one of Nassau’s more exclusive neighborhoods, reportedly costing $1 million.

“Ellis claimed that the stories were exaggerated, but made no excuses for his lifestyle, implying it was only fitting for the pastor of such a large and thriving church.”

Again rejecting how he was characterized by the diplomat, Ellis told The Nassau Guardian, “I understand the role I am in…I’m always up for public scrutiny.

“I try to take it gracefully.  I’ve never responded to any attacks in the media…When you’re in the public’s eye and when you’re in public life you have to be open to public scrutiny.”

The diplomat wrote in 2002, “As a consequence of his ongoing bad press, Ellis has vowed not to respond to any of the allegations against him.

“Doing so, he said, just legitimizes those allegations and gives them more life.  Many in his congregation, he says, have disagreed with this policy and urge him to publicly lash out at his critics, which he admits is tempting, but he continues to maintain his silence, preferring to let the criticism pass.”

Ellis told the Guardian he has not collected a salary from Mount Tabor in 17 years.

“I give my services to Mount Tabor free of charge,” he said.

He said he earns money from speaking engagements, books and other products he offers.

“If Mount Tabor was paying me $180,000 I wouldn’t be going home,” he said with a laugh.

He stressed also that he never told his congregation to vote PLP or leave the church.

Ellis insists that the recording to this effect is a compilation of several sermons he delivered that were doctored by critics and sent to the media.

He said Christie never asked him to be his spiritual adviser and he never regarded himself as such.

Asked by The Nassau Guardian if he would be prepared to endorse Christie in the next general election, Ellis said it was not something he wished to discuss publicly as yet.

“Mr. Christie and I shared a wonderful relationship leading up to the (2002) election and thereafter,” he added.

“I don’t claim to have been any closer to him than any others.”

Ellis stressed that he has respect for all of the country’s leaders and noted that he was a part of a group of pastors who met with Ingraham last year to discuss important matters.

 

 

 

 

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Last Updated on Tuesday, 14 June 2011 13:54
 

 

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