Greater than Jesus

ANNOUNCER: And thousands eat it up.
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UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The man, Christ Jesus, is here among us.

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ANNOUNCER: Tonight, why some call it a cult. And the church denies it.

Across the country and around the world, this is ANDERSON COOPER 360. Sitting in tonight for Anderson, and reporting from the CNN studios in New York, here’s John Roberts.
[…]

ROBERTS: From fire now to a fire and brimstone preacher.

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I am greater than him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You are?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, because I teach better than him. He spoke in parables. I teach wisdom and revelations.


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ROBERTS: More popular than Jesus Christ? We haven’t heard that since the Beatles. Millions of people believe this guy. We’ll take a look inside a religious sect that is turning heads, when 360 continues.

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ROBERTS: Preacher Jose Luis De Jesus Miranda is nothing, if not a self-made man. His own religious sect in a Miami warehouse, he now spreads his word via his own satellite channel, with worshipers following him like rock star.

But his lavish lifestyle and curious believes have more than a few people wondering if he’s suffering well, from a Messiah complex.

CNN’s John Zarrella reports.

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JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Nine bodyguards surround 60-year-old Jose Luis De Jesus Miranda. Dressed in a finely tailored suit, he greets his followers as he walks a red carpet into a 500 seat auditorium packed with members of his congregation. His presence brings tears of joy and an outpouring of song.

De Jesus is founder and leader of Creciendo en Gracia, or Growing in Grace. A religious sect that claims millions of members around the world, but there’s no way to know for sure.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You receive it, you accept it, you confess it, and it’s going to be.

ZARRELLA: The sign on he pulpit looks like the American Eagle, but reads the government of God on earth. It is a sect with some very different beliefs.

JOSE LUIS DE JESUS MIRANDA, CHURCH LEADER: We don’t believe in sin, we don’t believe in the devil, we don’t believe that there is such place like hell.

ZARRELLA: Which makes the ten commandments irrelevant.

DE JESUS MIRANDA: Those rules are good for the society, but not for the kingdom of God.

ZARRELLA: The truth is not found in the gospels, says de Jesus, but in letters of Paul. De Jesus once said he was a reincarnation of Paul. Then two years ago, he proclaimed himself Christ.

DE JESUS MIRANDA: Oh, I won’t die. No, I won’t die.

ZARRELLA: You’re not dying?

DE JESUS MIRANDA: No, no, I won’t die. Even if you tried to kill me.

ZARRELLA: And his followers believe him.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The man Christ Jesus is here among us.

ZARRELLA: The Puerto Rican born de Jesus admits to drug use and spending time in jail as a youth. Now he claims God has merged with him.

DE JESUS MIRANDA: He said I will appear for the second time without relationship to sin and that’s what I’m doing. I do greater things than Jesus of Nazareth. Much greater.

ZARRELLA (on camera): Greater than Jesus of Nazareth?

DE JESUS MIRANDA: Much greater.

ZARRELLA: Does that make you greater than Jesus?

DE JESUS MIRANDA: I am greater than him.

ZARRELLA: You are?

DE JESUS MIRANDA: Yes, because I teach better than him. He spoke in parables. I preach wisdom and revelation.

ZARRELLA (voice-over): He does not perform miracles, he says because the second coming is based on teaching and building the church. And his followers are not shy about their belief. They have confronted Catholics outside of church and held rallies in Miami. Tearing up religious writings of other faiths.

In El Salvador, they demonstrated outside a cathedral and smashed statues of Jesus

DE JESUS MIRANDA: Sometimes it gets out of hand because of the other people.

ZARRELLA (on camera): So you are blaming them?

DE JESUS MIRANDA: Yes, well they get wild. Not us.

ZARRELLA (voice-over): De Jesus’s followers are also generous. Handing over envelopes of cash that go into his wife’s purse.

JUAN SAAVEDRA, CHURCH MEMBER: There’s many people that accuse us of giving everything to the apostle, 90 percent, 100 percent. That’s not necessarily true.

ZARRELLA: His daughter, the church treasurer, says they brought in $1.4 million in donations last year, here in the United States. Most of it, they say, goes to expenses and running cable television networks here and in Latin America.

DE JESUS MIRANDA: The electricity, they send me a bill. Telephone, they send a bill. I go to take a plane, they charge me. We need money, John. The system down here is money.

ZARRELLA: His salary is reported as $136,000 a year. He lives richer than that. A lavish home. Expensive cars.

(On camera): You have got a beautiful — what is that, a Rolex you’re wearing?

DE JESUS MIRANDA: Yes.

ZARRELLA: A beautiful Rolex and the diamond encrusted ring there, and the gold chain.

DE JESUS MIRANDA: I don’t only have one, I have three (UNINTELLIGIBLE), given by my beautiful people who love me so much. This is all free, you know, gifts that they give me. I can reject that.

ZARRELLA (voice-over): De Jesus’ sect has all of the earmarks of a cult, says Expert Steve Hassan.

STEVE HASSAN, CULT EXPERT: Destructive religious cults are about fear, about control, about deception and manipulation and about making the leader wealthy and not about serving the downtrodden and the poor.

ZARRELLA: De Jesus’ followers insist they are nothing like that.

AXEL POESSY, CHURCH MEMBER: They pick your friends, you pick your businesses, that kind of stuff. And here, it is like the whole world is ours. I mean, we don’t even have documentation of who our members are. So how is it that we’re a cult? I mean, it doesn’t fit.

ZARRELLA: It’s been 20 years since de Jesus founded Growing in Grace in a warehouse outside Miami. His ambitions are still growing.

DE JESUS MIRANDA: I’m going to change the whole world.

ZARRELLA: And that, he says, is why he’s here.

John Zarrella, CNN, Miami.

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ROBERTS: More of 360 in just a moment. Stay with us.

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ROBERTS: Tomorrow, on “AMERICAN MORNING,” a look at a unique new movie. When filmgoers go for sex and violence to get the crowds, why would some go in the opposite direction?

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We want them to walk out of the movie theater not only having seen a well-told story, but moved emotionally and moved spiritually.

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ROBERTS: Can “Facing the Giants” win the hearts and souls of moviegoers? God’s presence on the silver screen. That and all the earliest news, tomorrow on “AMERICAN MORNING,” starting at 6:00 a.m., Eastern.

And that’s this edition of 360. For Anderson Cooper, I’m John Roberts. Thanks for joining us.

“LARRY KING” is next.

We’ll see you tomorrow.

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This post was last updated: Monday, February 26, 2007 at 1:16 PM, Central European Time (CET)