(CP) Hillsong Church founder Brian Houston, who recently resigned from his post as global senior pastor over allegations of sexual misconduct, also bullied church leaders into handing over cash and real estate to enrich his megachurch network, two former pastors who worked with the embattled spiritual leader claim.
Husband and wife pastors Vera and Zhenya Kasevich, who led Hillsong churches in Kyiv and Moscow for more than 20 years, said in an ABC Australia report that they were threatened when they tried to break away from the Hillsong network in 2014.
The couple, who recently emigrated to the US, said Houston and George Aghajanian, the general manager and a director of Hillsong Church Australia and its international entities, threatened to derail their immigration plans if they didn't comply with their demands for money and property.
Houston has denied the allegations.
Documents signed by Aghajanian reportedly show that Hillsong Church Ltd. asked the Kasevichs to make a "voluntary donation" of the proceeds of the sale of a property and over $230,000 in cash.
The Kasevichs, who also appear in the "Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed" documentary on Discovery Plus, say they founded their church in Ukraine in 1992 with financial help from Hillsong Church.
Even though they named their church Hillsong, they maintain that they remained independent. By 2008, the congregation had grown into a thriving church generating $1 million in income from donations alone. It was around this time, they said, that Houston developed an interest in their work.
Zhenya Kasevich claimed they had to pay large sums for guest speakers to attend a Hillsong conference in Kyiv.
"We had to pay $13,000 for first-class tickets from the USA to Ukraine," he told the news outlet. He claimed that the excesses made him and his wife uncomfortable.
"We could not look at our poor people's eyes and tell them we are using church money for our benefit and our luxurious life," he added. "So when we saw this, we started to raise questions."
Around the time in 2014, while they were trying to break away from Hillsong Church, the Kasevichs say they were also trying to immigrate to the US with the help of the church.
As a result of their disagreement, they claim Hillsong Church threatened to derail their immigration application.
In one email cited by the publication, Aghajanian purportedly notes that he "can make things very difficult" for the Kasevichs "with the American authorities."
Houston warned in another purported email that Vera and Zhenya Kasevich "have a lot to fear" and that his general manager has "a lot of useful information for the US embassy" on them.
"Basically, [Brian Houston] said ... 'This church is mine. I will make your life small. I will squash it,'" Vera Kasevich said.
Houston dismissed the Kasevichs' allegations as "a complete fantasy." When contacted by ABC Australia, he denied threatening their efforts to immigrate to the U.S.
The couple says now that their immigration to the US was successful, they no longer feel intimidated to speak up about the dealings of Hillsong Church leaders in Australia.
"We were quiet for eight full years ... and now we are safe," Zhenya Kasevich was quoted as saying.
The Kasevichs say they eventually gave Hillsong Church officials what they wanted to prevent their congregation from being split up amid threats by Hillsong to start a rival church in Kyiv. They say there were forced to "completely cut" ties with their members.
ABC Australia reported that the Kasevichs refused to sign a non-disclosure agreement with Hillsong. The agreement would have allegedly prohibited them from attending any Hillsong service in Kyiv or Moscow or contacting Hillsong staff or volunteers directly.
"We are not afraid to tell the truth, and we want other people who are victims to have a voice," Vera Kasevich said.
The Christian Post asked Hillsong Church on Wednesday if requiring Hillsong Church ministry leaders to sign non-disclosure agreements is standard practice. A response was not immediately received.