The king arrived mysteriously in the Land of Israel. He wielded a staff and said he commanded a kingdom in Africa, and that he was capable of summoning millions of followers to his side. He travelled with an entourage. Angelic figures had visited him, he said, and he spoke directly to God. His followers projected their hopes and desires onto him. Some even took to calling him the Messiah.
But then his kingdom fell apart.
Francois Ayi, a globetrotting spiritual leader originally from Togo, has moved between Christian, Jews for Jesus-style and Orthodox circles over the past few decades and gained a small following in Israel over the past year. In September, his Israeli idyll — fueled by a surge of messianic fervor among some religious Jews — came to an end.
“He was a false Messiah and false prophet playing games,” said Rabbi Daniel Asor, an ultra-Orthodox spiritual leader who campaigns against Christian proselytization in Israel. Asor had embraced Ayi, but then rejected him publicly as a fraud.
“He wants to destroy me,” Ayi said of Asor, who he threatened to take to Israeli court for libel. “He wants to destroy the mission.”
What is that mission? Ayi promised to bring hundreds of African kings and queens from lost Israelite tribes to Jerusalem on a revelatory pilgrimage during the Jewish festival of Sukkot, which falls in October.
The King’s Arrival: ‘From the Four Corners’
In an interview with the Forward Ayi laid out his grand plan: to “bring all the kings and queens of Africa, since I am their king… I want all the Jews in the world to come [to Jerusalem] and sing the Shema prayer.”
In Israel, his message resonated.
Ayi rode a wave of religious fervor taking hold of the country. Groups that were previously fringe — like the Temple Institute, which seeks to build a grand temple in Jerusalem to hasten the coming of the Messiah — are becoming more mainstream.
The Temple Institute treated Ayi like an honored guest; ultra-Orthodox rabbis Chaim Kanievsky and Shmuel Auerbach met with him and offered blessings. The so-called Sanhedrin — a self-fashioned duplicate of the tribunal that convened during the time of the Second Temple — dubbed him “King of Africa.”
Ayi claimed he had 357 kings under his control — most of them Jewish — and helmed a group called the Organization of Kings and Queens of Africa. “I promised them [that] we will go to Israel,” Ayi said. “They consult the stars and see who is going to be a future king.”
It all fit neatly into these Jews’ beliefs that the biblical end-times are upon us. Millennalism, the belief in these divinely-ordained end-times, is found in many religious movements. According to such beliefs, a whole range of signs will appear — including the return of the “dispersed of Israel” and the “scattered of Judah,” as the book of Isaiah reads, “from the four corners of the earth.”
Ayi’s supporters among the Orthodox hoped he could help fulfill that aspect of the prophecy. But his path to Israel was winding; his role as a “Lost Tribe king” is just one iteration of the man.
A Self-Made Man: ‘It Became More and More Dramatic’
Ayi was raised in Togo and attended a Pentecostal school. He came to the United States in the 1980s, enlisted the help of a former American teacher and enrolled in Bible school here. Soon, he began making the rounds in churches, raising money for what he said was charity work in Togo.
But details about his charity and his own personal life are blurry. In interviews, with the Forward and other outlets, Ayi speaks in broad terms about his early life.
He talks mostly about a “royal lineage,” one which he began promoting shortly after arriving in the United States. He held a lavish enthronement ceremony for himself in 1994.
Ayi enjoyed a career as a spiritual figure and charity fundraiser in America. But in his wake, he left many detractors.
The Togolese Embassy had questioned his credentials and the government had investigated his charity. Ayi also had a public falling-out with his former Bible teacher.
Loralene White, whose father Gordon White taught Ayi in a seminary in Togo, said that Ayi used her father’s name, despite his objections, as a reference.
“My dad said, ‘No, he’s not a king,’ White said in an earlier interview with the Forward. “Over the years, Ayi got more successful with his story. It became more and more dramatic.”
In 2000, the Florida newspaper the Sun Sentinel declared Ayi “either a benevolent monarch or a con artist perpetrating an elaborate ruse.”
Around 2005, Ayi said he founded his Organization of African Kings and Queens, the group that he hoped to bring to Israel.
By 2015, he had reemerged in Messianic Jewish circles, according to James Wilson, who met Ayi at El Shaddai, a Messianic Jewish congregation in Virginia, Maryland. Messianic Judaism combines the belief that Jesus Christ is the Messiah with some Jewish traditions.
Wilson had been “watching for signs” of the end-times for a decade. The owner of a construction company, Wilson had considered traveling to Jerusalem to put his skills to work on an excavation at the Western Wall.
When Wilson met Ayi at El Shaddai, he was immediately drawn to him. Wilson entered into Ayi’s close-knit circle of supporters and was dubbed the “king’s scribe,” which mostly means he writes emails on Ayi’s behalf.
At this point Ayi had fully fleshed out the story of his African kingship, gathering patrons to support his preaching and the trip he wanted to make to Israel.
As Ayi tells it, his spiritual journey is peppered with dreams and angelic visitations. Take, for example, the mysterious anecdotes that Ayi offers: While sitting at an outdoor cafe in Paris last summer, he said, a strange man visited him; he handed Ayi a Jewish prayer shawl, and said, “You have the key to do unlock the door, you have the keys in your hand.” Then the man disappeared.
More recently, Ayi said that an Israeli supporter initially flew him to the country to begin his pilgrimage campaigning. That supporter, whom Ayi did not name, said, “You must go to Israel and I must buy you a ticket, you must go home.”
Messianic Hopes: ‘A Message of Unity’
Ayi first met Asor in Jerusalem in May of this year. Motivated by a desire to “save” the Togolese man from Christianity, Asor took Ayi under his wing. Asor is an Israel rabbi who fell into Christian circles as a young man and later became an anti-missionary crusader in Israel, campaigning against Christian proselytization. Asor knew that the Togolese man had a Christian background but hoped to pull Ayi “out of Christianity” and lead him into Jewish Orthodoxy.
Asor introduced Ayi to Jerusalem’s entire millennialist crowd, where end-times visions are never far from the surface.
Two religious websites trumpeted Ayi’s arrival. Breaking News Israel wrote glowing reports calling him “the ruler of the Republic of Togo” who brought “astounding proofs” of his Lost Tribe lineage and a “message of unity.”
Israel Rising, a blog run by a West Bank settler and Africa-enthusiast named David Mark, also lavished praise on Ayi.
Ayi also claimed to have an ancestral connection to the biblical House of David — from which, tradition holds, the Messiah will hail. Combined with the imprimatur of a few high-level rabbinic figures, this all made a potent mix.
Some started whispering: Could this be the Messiah?
But at the height of his power, things began to unravel.
The King’s Fall: ‘We’ve Reached the Jerusalem Syndrome Level’
In a searing September 6 article in the Orthodox website Kikar Shabbat, Asor denounced Ayi as a fraud — someone who practiced “witchcraft” and disobeyed the Sabbath.
The blow was fatal. Asor was Ayi’s most prominent advocate. Ayi’s other supporters also quickly dropped off.
The journalists that had propped him up denounced him as a “false king” who was “bending the light of redemption” for his own gain. Mark, the Hebron writer, quietly deleted his past posts praising the king. A video interview of Ayi with Asor disappeared from YouTube. “We’ve reached the Jerusalem Syndrome level,” Mark told the Forward, with some embarrassment.
There wasn’t just one reason that the king fell from favor. His Israeli friends talk about the subject with embarrassment: He was aggressively raising money, they say; he had said he wanted to convert to Judaism, but wasn’t following their advice; he called himself, or allowed others to call him, a Messiah.
Ayi says he is shocked by his friends’ change of heart.
Speaking from Benin, Ayi denied every charge leveled against him. He never called himself a Messiah, he said. He never said he wanted to convert to Judaism. “We are Jews,” he said, referring to his claim that he hails from a line of Israelite royalty. “How can I convert?”
He denied that he had asked for money, in Israel or abroad, for his mission.
A Swell of End-Times Fervor: ‘We Wanted Him to Fulfill That Role’
Millennialist hopes are rising in Israel. Mordechai Inbari, a professor of religion who has written about Religious Zionism in Israel and past “messianic candidates,” said that messianic feelings peak and dip, and the climate in Israel now may provide fertile ground for “messianic candidates to stand up and stand out.”
“I find it very hard to believe that Orthodox yeshiva students found an African king, a non-Jew, as a messianic candidate,” said Inbari. “But, [the] Messiah is always a paradox, and unusual things are associated with the Messiah.”
Ayi still has a few loyal followers in Jerusalem. One 45-year-old ultra-Orthodox woman named Geula Ida operates his “Israel office” out of her home. (Her younger sister is another acolyte, who also helps.)
Ida described meeting Ayi months ago and how she was drawn to him.
“For many years I was talking about the end-times and all of what the prophets say,” she said, speaking to the Forward from Israel. She said Ayi’s mission of bringing “Lost Tribes” to Israel spoke to her, it moved her.
“It is very important for the Redemption,” she said.
Ida took Ayi’s fall personally. She said she was heartbroken. Just weeks ago, Ida was helping to organize lectures and speaking arrangements for Ayi, where he would speak to Orthodox crowds. “Before, we [ran] many lectures and the people were very excited,” she said. Ayi spoke to expectant crowds in Tsfat, for example, where his car was thronged by a crowd of young students.
Ayi and Ida say that the king’s plan of a pilgrimage will continue — indeed, it could. Sukkot is a time of the year when many pilgrims, Christian and Jewish, descend on Jerusalem. There is no reason that Ayi could not lead a delegation to the holy city — he just may have to do without the Jewish backing he once enjoyed.
Mark said he felt betrayed, but admitted that Ayi was not entirely to blame for the fallout. Mark felt culpable, too: Everyone who embraced Ayi played their part. This was a misunderstanding, Mark offered, prophetic hopes misplaced amidst a messianic shuffle.
“We wanted him to fulfill that role, that end-of-days role, for us,” said Mark. “A lot of people were projecting what they wanted on him.”
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 .