Madonna's support for Kabbalah is growing. She has already spent £3.6million on a West End headquarters for the controversial religious sect. Now she has bought it a £1.6million Regent's Park property.
The star, who became a Kabbalah devotee in the Nineties, has purchased the five-storey Georgian house to be used as a hotel cum drop-in centre for the sect.
The teachings of Kabbalah, whose followers include Britney Spears, Demi Moore and Barbra Streisand, are based on a 4,000-year-old mystical Hebrew philosophy. Denounced by some rabbis as "crackpot", its devotees chant and meditate at meetings into the early hours.
Madonna, 46, bought the house in Conway Street, close to the £7.5million Marylebone home she shares with film director husband Guy Ritchie, on behalf of the Kabbalah Trust from retired graphic designers Peter and Julia Stillwell two weeks ago.
In the street yesterday, residents spoke of their fears about their new neighbours. Zeze el-Dib, 56, said people were wary of Kabbalah and its leaders' motives, adding: "We do not want any sect here. I do not want to interfere with anybody's religious wishes but with Kabbalah we have to be suspicious."
Another neighbour, who did not wish to be named, said: "Having a Kabbalah centre would be totally inappropriate. It is a seriously manipulative sect which is very good at getting people's money, including Madonna's."
However, Morris Conroy, a former Kabbalah member, had no objections. "This is a central London location where residents are used to people coming and going," he said. Mr Stillwell, who has moved to a farm in Tonbridge, Kent, said: "We really wanted to leave although we had wonderful memories there. But as far as I am concerned Kabbalah can do what it likes with the building.
"It hasn't got planning permission to be used as offices so we got the impression Kabbalah want to use it for people needing to stay in London overnight to save the cost of a hotel."
Worldwide interest in the sect has been growing despite claims that converts are "brain-washed" into handing over a large slice of their earnings to fund the lifestyle of its US-based leader, former insurance salesman and New York rabbi Philip Berg.
Madonna, or Esther as she's known by fellow devotees, bought the group's first London headquarters in Stratford Place and is spending several million dollars on another Kabbalah centre in New York.
She has written a series of children's books based on its teachings and featured Kabbalah images on her last tour. She is reported to have turned down a place on the Cannes Film Festival jury this year because she would have missed two Kabbalah meetings in London.
Asked yesterday if she thought her support of the group had damaged her career, the singer told NBC: "Absolutely not. I do know that there's cynicism involved but I accept it because it's different. It's something new to people and people are always guarded and suspicious of things that are new."
Mainstream rabbis disagree. Rabbi Barry Marcus of London's Central Synagogue described Kabbalah as "hell-bent on making money" while last year the Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, said it was not recognised by religious authorities.
The centre, which it says is a not-for-profit organisation, charges £35 for a day of chanting and meditation. Red strings that followers tie around their wrists to ward off evil spirits cost up to £25 but are free in Israel.