A storm is brewing at the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, with South African pastors accusing their Brazilian bishop of racism, discrimination and favouring Portuguese pastors.
At least 50 pastors have left the church since the end of 2008 and some of those who have left say there are hundreds of others who are too afraid to leave because they have no financial backing.
In February, a large group of unhappy pastors sent a letter to the founder of the church, Bishop Edir Masedo, spelling out the discrimination they have been subjected to, but they have not received a response to their complaints.
Despite undertakings from the UCKG’s press office that they would respond to the allegations on Friday, they failed to return questions sent to them.
This week, Pastor Frans Nkabande and two other pastors, one of whom has recently left and another who plans to leave, said the church was a “trap”.
The church, which originates in Brazil, was brought to South Africa in 1992.
There are around 800 African pastors and 300 Brazilian pastors, and the church is believed to have one of the biggest church followings in South Africa.
The aggrieved pastors have raised allegations of forced vasectomies for the pastors, racism, pay discrepancies, severe humiliation and intimidation.
Nkabande said: “At first you don’t worry about these things because you think you are busy with the work of the Lord. But this discrimination has been ongoing for a while.
“There is no leave, no time to see your extended family. You work from 5.30am until 8pm every day. They pay for your accommodation.
“You are not allowed to have any training not authorised by the church and are not allowed to have a separate savings account. They say you shouldn’t be attached to material possessions and that these are sacrifices for the work of God.”
There have also been allegations of dismissals without the pastors being notified.
The pastors are also questioning “adulterous pastors” who have not been disciplined, and some Brazilian pastors who they claim have stolen money, but have not been dismissed.
“They are not dismissed or disciplined. The South African pastors, on the other hand, are humiliated in front of the entire range of pastors for their wrongdoings. Punishment is not for Brazilian pastors, only for us,” said another pastor, who did not want to be named.
“We have worked so hard to make this church and now they are getting all the advantages,” added the third pastor, who did not want to be identified.
Other allegations are that families are not informed of pastors’ deaths. And while African pastors are given the bare minimum to attend funerals of their close relatives, the Brazilian pastors receive all-expenses-paid returns home that have amounted to up to R20 000, local pastors claim.
The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG) is known in Brazil as Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus, and operates in some places under the name “Stop Suffering” (often using a local translation of the phrase).
The church promotes so-called ‘word-faith’ teachings, with a particular emphasis on the ‘seed-faith’ doctrine. ‘Seed-faith’ is another term for ‘prosperity gospel’ – a scam in which a pastor, teacher or evangelist claims that receive anything at all from God, one must first donate money, known as a ‘seed-faith’ offering. You reap what you sow, the claim goes. The money must be donated to the person who tells you about this trick, and many televangelists have become comfortably rich that way. Some of them twist a Bible verse into promising a ‘hundred-fold return.’
Of course, if this scam worked as advertised, those who preach it would be sending others money.
Often the scam is presented in such as way that gullible people find themselves led to believe their illnesses won’t be cured unless and until they pay up.
The New York Post reported
Believers are promised healing and riches – for a price. The more one gives, the more miracles one will reap, The Post heard preachers say in church branches in four boroughs.
”Give $500, $100, $50,” a Brooklyn bishop pleaded recently in a branch in a converted movie house on Fourth Avenue in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn. ”When you give freely, you will prosper.”
In Woodside, Queens, a pastor bellows out to his followers: ”Unless you give, you cannot be blessed.”
Regina Cerveira, the Universal Church’s chancellor and spiritual administrator in New York, insists that a higher donation doesn’t buy a better blessing.
”A person who gives $500 is not going to get more blessings than someone who just gives $100.”
But ex-pastor Mario Justino said that during a decade of preaching for the Universal Church in Brazil, Portugal and Brooklyn, his superiors instructed him to ”tell the people, ‘If you don’t give, God does not look at your problems.”’
Justino said he told followers that God was not content with small change. If they want to prosper, they must give until it hurts.
The cash-for-miracles approach is quite successful:
The Universal Church is only the third-biggest Pentecostal group in Brazil, but it is the most ambitious. It has branches in 172 countries, but in Brazil it also has its own political party (the Partido Republicano Brasileiro, or PRB) and owns Rede Record, the second-largest television network (which includes a 24-hour news channel).
Yet controversy is never far away when it comes to the UCKG:
Brazil’s controversial Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, a sort of capitalist transnational and exploiter of the peoples’ faith, has been the center of scandal Tuesday, after millions in allegedly illegal funds were discovered.
Headlining the main papers today were the Monday arrests of the deputy of the rightist PFL (Liberal Front Party) and president of this sect, Joao Batista, and another six people in the possession of seven suitcases containing about 10 million reales, some 4 million dollars.
A release by the Universal Church corroborated what the deputy had said: the money resulted from parishioners’ contributions and was to be deposited in Sao Paulo.
However, the Federal Police suspect it results from money laundering or tax evasion.
In 1992 Bishop Macedo was imprisoned for 11 days in Brazil for fraud and false pretenses and in 1996, investigations began into his methods of collecting funds, fraud involving international currency exchange, tax evasion, and links with drug-traffickers.
Last year the controversial church tried to intimidate an investigative journalist and the Brazilian newspaper she works for by filing a wave of lawsuits — an abuse of the legal system.
Meanwhile in Uganda the church also accepts cars as donations — but got upset when one parishioner demanded her car back when she was not healed as promised.