Pass through the towering golden gates and you come to the reception area, where hidden guards eyeball visitors through tinted, bulletproof glass.
Then come the glistening marble floors and voluptuous balconies, the 25m heated indoor pool and the gigantic underground car park, filled with dozens of top of the range cars (the majority bulletproof). Finally there is the nearby helipad where illustrious guests can be whisked in and out of the neighbourhood without worrying about kidnapping or congestion.
This is the Place Vendome, a towering residential complex in Chacara Klabin, a leafy haven in southern Sao Paulo for the elite and the seriously rich. But unlikely as it may seem, it was also until recently the site of one of the world’s most luxurious vicarages and home to two of Brazil’s most controversial religious figures, Estevam Hernandes Filho, a former Xerox marketing director known to followers as the Apostle, and his wife, “Bishop Sonia”.
The Hernandeses, who lead the Igreja Apostolica Renascer em Cristo (Reborn in Christ Church), are two of the most powerful and controversial religious leaders in Brazil, where the evangelical church grows bigger every day.
They are also two of Brazil’s most wanted evangelicals, currently under house arrest in Miami. They will appear in court in the United States this month accused of trying to smuggle $56 467 in cash through Miami airport.
According to documents sent by the US department of homeland security to the Brazilian authorities, $10 000 in cash was stashed in the backpack of their son, Gabriel, while another $9 088 was hidden inside a copy of the Bible. Back in Brazil, the couple are wanted on money laundering and fraud charges.
– The Bible, 1 Timothy 6:3-10 NIV
For many, their upcoming trial confirms long-held suspicions that sections of Brazil’s flamboyant evangelical church use religion as a pretext for fraud, money laundering and organised crime. Brazil’s evangelical church, an umbrella term that includes Pentecostals, Baptists and other denominations, has exploded in size since the early 1980s. Its congregation now totals about 26-million crentes, or believers, in a country of 188-million people. Brazil remains the world’s largest Catholic nation, yet the evangelists are catching up fast. Preachers such as Romildo Ribeiro Soares, one of the country’s best-known evangelical personalities and the leader of the International Church of the Grace of God, exercise huge power, with regular television slots and huge events.
“Brazil is going through a silent spiritual revolution,” Soares enthused backstage at the Show of Faith, one of the church’s mega-events on Botafogo beach in Rio de Janeiro, which attracted tens of thousands of ecstatic followers. “There are now places where more than 50% of the population are believers. The understanding of the word of God is spreading. The Brazilian is waking up — in a few years the majority of this country will be evangelical.”
The evangelical community also boasts serious political clout — until recently it had 61 of the 513 representatives in Brazil’s Congress, including two affiliated to the Reborn Church, and three senators.
Evangelical politicians and preachers often recite an extract from Proverbs, called Warnings and Instructions, which encourages followers to back religious leaders. “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice,” the extract from verse 29 reads. “But when a wicked man rules, the people groan.”
Church incomes have rocketed — bringing about the rise of what critics dub “capitalism theology” and opening the door for massive levels of corruption. With more than 1 000 “temples” in Brazil, the Igreja Renascer is one of the chief beneficiaries of the boom. Founded in 1986, the church now boasts tentacles across the world including temples in Florida and links to religious leaders in London. Last year its March for Jesus in Sao Paulo attracted about three million Christians, organisers said.
The couple own radio stations, a record company and even a television network, while the church’s real estate empire is no less impressive. Apart from the property in Place Vendome, the Hernandeses preside over several sprawling ranches in the hilltops of Sao Paulo (complete with swimming pools, horses, private lakes and waterfalls), a $500 000 mansion in an exclusive Miami housing complex and a handful of luxury apartments in Chacara Klabin.
Arthur Pinto de Lemos, a state prosecutor from Sao Paulo’s organised crime taskforce, is leading the Brazilian investigation into the Reborn Church. Surrounded by thick yellow files containing hundreds of allegations against the church, he claims the Hernandeses are in fact the leaders of a sprawling “criminal organisation”.
“It works in the same way [as Sao Paulo’s PCC drug faction],” he said, sketching a pyramid on his notebook to illustrate the power network within the church. “Their mentality was always that of business people. The doctrine of the Reborn Church is businesslike and capitalist. This was always their spirit.”
To illustrate his point, Lemos describes a raid last year on one of the couple’s ranches. As well as jet skis, a swimming pool and a tennis court, his officers found a diary in which Hernandes thanks God for giving her luxury goods. “Today I fulfilled a dream,” she writes. “I bought clothes at Chocolate” — a chic women’s boutique.
Since their arrest in January, the Hernandeses have repeatedly rejected claims of any wrongdoing, publicly describing their “persecution” as the work of demons. The couple’s legal representative, Luiz Flavio Borges D’Urso, who is one of Brazil’s most respected lawyers, was unavailable for comment despite an attempt to contact him.
Lemos refuses to be drawn on how many other evangelical leaders are under investigation for financial crimes, but it is believed that the Brazilian authorities are investigating other figures within the wider evangelical church.
He complains, however, that bringing such powerful figures to justice is never a simple task.
“In Brazil there is always a difficulty in putting in jail people who have a good pattern of life and excellent lawyers. For businessmen who commit crimes there is always a sensation of impunity.”
Christ and capitalism
Brazil is the world’s largest Catholic nation, with about 125-million adherents, but the evangelical church has exploded in size since the early 1980s and today has an estimated 26-million followers in a country of 188-million.
If it continues to grow at this rate, Brazil’s Catholics would be the minority within 20 years. The Catholic Church has responded by adopting its opponents’ tactics — launching pop-star priests and holding mega-events.
Many evangelical churches have set up their own newspapers and TV channels, but the movement has come under repeated fire.
The largest Brazilian church, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, which has a temple in London, has been embroiled in scandals and accusations for more than a decade.
Its founder, Edir Macedo, has been accused of embezzlement and tax evasion and was caught backstage on camera at one event stuffing handfuls of cash into a holdall.