Three leading members of one of Brazil’s most powerful churches have been accused of laundering millions in church donations and using worshippers’ money for personal gain.
The charges, unveiled on Monday by São Paulo’s public prosecutor, relate to 404m reals (£150m) allegedly obtained from mostly impoverished churchgoers by leaders at Brazil’s Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.
The money was subsequently channelled out of the country via a network of offshore bank accounts and money changers, federal prosecutors claimed.
Among those charged is Bishop Edir Macedo, a controversial televangelist who founded the church in 1977, and his financial director, Alba Maria Silva da Costa.
Luís Martins de Oliveira, the prosecutor behind the case, claimed followers were tricked into handing over money to the church through “false promises and threats that spiritual and economic assistance would only be bestowed upon those who made financial sacrifices for the church”.
Prosecutors claim that although the church claimed to have received around £1.85bn in donations between 2003 and 2006, the actual sum could be much higher.
The charges also allege the church opened two offshore accounts in the early 1990s, in the Cayman Islands and in Jersey, to move donations out of the country.
The Universal Church was founded in northern Rio and today claims a worldwide congregation of 8 million followers.
Church leaders promote “prosperity theology” – through which committed believers are told their faith and regular, generations donations can help them achieve material wealth.
But corruption scandals, including claims that donations were used to buy luxury goods and property, have earned the church many critics.
Last July Macedo told his followers to go on a ‘media fast.’ At the time, the Guardian said “Many suspect the move, however, is a tactic to divert followers’ attention from bad press.
“The Christian news website Gospel+ noted that Macedo had called for “media fasts” twice in the past. On both occasions, the fasts coincided with negative stories about the Universal Church that were widely disseminated in the Brazilian media, including allegations of money laundering.”
In 2000 the New York Post reported about the UCKG:
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.”’