A self-professed “Lost Tribe King” from Togo is promising to lead a mass pilgrimage to Jerusalem this fall.
He says he will bring Jewish kings and queens from Africa: hundreds of them, who will “scream Shema Yisrael at the Western Wall,” Francois Ayi told the blog Israel Rising, referring to the central Jewish prayer that proclaims the oneness of God.
A multilingual, charismatic figure, Ayi is in his 60s and has in recent months emerged as public figure in Israel, his arrival prompting a celebratory fanfare from religious sectors. His increasing prominence there reflects the new legitimacy enjoyed by Jewish activists who are working to bring the biblical Messiah by recreating the Third Temple.
“One of the more remarkable incarnations of the prophesied ingathering of the exiles is the discovery of Jewish roots in African tribes. The King of Togo, a country in West Africa, plans to strengthen that Messianic vision,” reads an article about the planned trip, on the religious website Breaking Israel News.
“We are the brothers and sisters who have been forgotten,” Ayi told the Forward in a phone interview. “The Lost Tribes.”
His latest plans, scheduled to coincide with the Jewish holiday of Sukkot in October, include a mass assembly “in the Square before the Wall at the Temple Mount in [Jerusalem] to hear the instructions of the Lord God,” according to an early draft of the schedule, shared with the Forward.
“King Daviyd Ayih, the Jewish Israelite King, and the elders of Israel call all Jews and friends of the Jews abroad to come to the land of our forefathers.”
Ayi has moved between Africa, America and Europe — sometimes dodging controversy — and has ties to Pentecostal and Messianic Jewish groups. Emails from Ayi identify him as “King Daviyd Ayayi Ayih” from the “Royal House of Ayih.” He carries a ceremonial staff; he travels with an entourage.
The embrace of the Temple Institute and other Orthodox rabbis, including a revered rabbi named Chaim Kanievsky, marks a new stage in his career.
“He’s really excited about this Sukkoth thing. That is a big dream of his,” Ayi’s assistant and “scribe” James Wilson said.
“This is the fulfillment of the prophecy that Hashem will bring the Lost Tribes back.”
But controversy has swirled around Ayi for decades.
Loralene White, whose father Gordon White taught Ayi in a seminary in Togo, said that her family helped Ayi when he emerged in the United States sometime in the 1980s. White’s father, who worked as a missionary for the Assembly of God church, helped his former student enroll in a bible school in Alabama. Soon afterward, though, Ayi began presenting himself as a king of Togo, White said, using Gordon White’s name as a reference.
‘Lost Tribe King’ Aims to Fulfill Prophecy by Returning Exiles to Israel
“My dad said, ‘No, he’s not a king,’ White said in an interview with the Forward. “Over the years, Ayi got more successful with his story. It became more and more dramatic.”
“He then started hitting up local churches with whatever fantastical story would get him a good result at the collection plate,” White said. “Americans, who were fantastically ignorant about Africa, would fall for his spiels.”
Ayi would periodically get in touch with White, asking him to not speak with reporters. “He tried to get my father to stay quiet. ‘When they call, help me go along with this … it is for the greater good,’” White recalled.
Ayi refuted claims that he was misrepresenting himself, saying that Americans did not understand how African tribal royalty systems are structured.
He also said he was raising money for a charity he founded, not taking advantage of anyone. “Some people, politically, they tried to attack me,” Ayi said in a May phone interview. “I never take anything from nobody for free. I work for it to help the poor,” said Ayi, referring to charity work which he has carried out for years, according to his website.
Ayi’s charity has sent more than $1 million in supplies to Togo, its executive director said in the 1990s.
His profile continued to grow. Ayi held an “Enthronement Ceremony” in Washington D.C. in 1994.
In 2002 Ayi became head of a group called the Organization of Kings and Queens of Africa, in the republic of Benin, Breaking Israel News reports. “They vote and consult, they did that, and I am the one the oracle [chose],” Ayi told the Forward. “We have someone who chose with bones… To be king, you have to come from the royal family.”
It is this organization which Ayi plans to bring to Jerusalem.
By 2014, Ayi had moved into Messianic Jewish circles in the United States, wearing a tallit that he said was given to him by an angelic apparition. It was at El Shaddai, a “Messianic Jewish-rooted” fellowship in Maryland, where Ayi met Wilson, who was drawn to Ayi’s message. Soon afterward, Wilson began working with Ayi as a “scribe,” joining a small circle that revolves around Ayi and setting up meetings on his behalf.
Some Israeli rabbis have objected to Ayi’s pilgrimage, noting that has a Christian background, the Hebrew news site Kikor Shabbat reported. But plans, for now, seem to be moving ahead. Ayi, after a return trip to America, is back in Israel. He recently visited with rabbis in Tsfat, the Israeli city closely linked the Kabbalistic Jewish mysticism.
“After searching, now I know that certain teachings are good, the other religion misled,” said Ayi. “Now I make my choice, to stay with the Torah that has been given to us.”
Sam Kestenbaum is a contributing editor and former staff writer for the Forward. Before this, he worked for The New York Times and newsrooms in Sana, Ramallah and Beijing. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @skestenbaum and on Instagram at @skestenbaum .