April 3, 2000, NAIROBI, Kenya (AP)--Every weekday morning, as the streets of downtown Nairobi begin to fill with people heading to work, Pius Muiru brings miracles to the Odeon cinema.

His voice fills the crumbling theater, booming through loudspeakers across cracked leather seats jammed with worshippers. It rolls out into the lobby and past the grimy candy counter, where still more people press their heads against the walls, trying to get just a little bit closer.

In a city where more than half the working age population can't find jobs, where hundreds of thousands live without electricity or piped water, and where few can afford quality medical care, Muiru and his church, the Maximum Miracle Center, bring hope.

"This is the power of miracles!" he yells into his cordless microphone, sweat beading on his face as he lays his hands on a woman complaining of stomach problems. "I reject the power of Satan."

She collapses back into the arms of the ecstatic crowd, then stands to wave her hands in thanks. For a moment, at least, her pain is gone.

Africans are turning to Christianity in ever-increasing numbers. With a yearly growth rate estimated at 3.5%, Christianity is growing more quickly in Africa than in any other part of the world. And increasingly, Africans--disillusioned by their governments and their politicians, and burdened by poverty and AIDS--are finding their God in independent churches like Muiru's.

Distanced from missionaries, free of large Western-based churches, and often combining African traditions with Christian rites, these churches have swept the continent. Some are tiny storefront operations, others movements with millions of followers.

The range of beliefs and practices, all within Christianity, is staggering: from the Zion Christian Church in South Africa to the Winners Chapel in Nigeria, from urban churches focused on material success to those with prophets in tiny villages.

Some of the churches go back to the early part of the 20th century, but experts have seen a surge in recent years--and today they number more than 6,000.

African Christian churches "are putting it together as someone would with great improvisational jazz," said Thomas E. Blakely, an anthropologist at Pennsylvania State University and an authority on the continent's religions. "They're making it up as they go along."

But leaders of some established Christian churches are worried about the spread of the independents. They fear a loss of members and a climate they worry is increasingly friendly to religious charlatans.

"It is a challenge," said Clement Janda, secretary general of the All African Conference of Churches. "There is a concern about this happening."

In recent weeks, fears of the most extreme fringe churches have increased, fed by the deaths of more than 1,000 of members of a doomsday Christian sect, the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, in the lush mountains of southwestern Uganda.

While only a minuscule percentage of churches veer into violence, the turmoil that can feed the growth of new churches can, in extreme cases, give rise to cults.

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In the late 1980s, when the Ten Commandments sect was born, Uganda was just emerging from years of anarchy, the economy was in shambles, and AIDS was killing people by the thousands. Desperate for answers, the movements' followers found it in extremism.

"People are poor and seek some relief in these sects, because the established churches do not offer in-depth attention to their physical problems," said the Rev. Stefano Kaombwe, secretary to the head of the Roman Catholic church in Tanzania. "What happened in Uganda could also happen in Tanzania. There is nothing to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring here."

Leaders of independent churches, though, say they have nothing in common with the Uganda cult, that their free-form Christianity not only spreads the Bible, but also offers hope, and perhaps some answers, to the specific problems facing their members.

"We are addressing the social issues, family upheavals, and such things," Muiru said after his service, in which dozens of people came forward to be healed. "What we're revealing to these people is that anything can happen to them."

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