GUATEMALA CITY — He calls himself the Antichrist, wears the number 666 tattooed on his arm and claims a following of 2 million people.
And Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda is coming to Guatemala whether it wants him or not.
The Central American country has banned the leader of the Florida-based Growing in Grace church, arguing he is a security risk because he provokes conflict with Roman Catholics and evangelicals.
But Miranda still plans to fly in on a private jet Saturday to celebrate his 61st birthday and meet with thousands of followers from around the world.
“It has been predestined and angels will make it happen. He is, after all, God himself,” said Axel Poessy, Miranda’s media director.
It is the Puerto Rican-born former evangelical priest’s latest attempts to expand his following in Central America. Most of his supporters are in Miami and Colombia, but Miranda holds a congress every year in different locations in the Americas. He has a 24-hour Spanish-language television network and a radio program broadcast on 287 stations.
He often takes aim at the Catholic Church — the most powerful faith in Latin America — calling all priests child molesters and saying chastity vows go against the Bible’s teachings. Members of his church have torn up images of saints and other religious symbols in El Salvador, and marched in Guatemala and Honduras.
He preaches that sin and the devil do not exist. In January, he revealed tattoos of the numbers 666 on his forearms and declared that he and his followers were antichrists because their beliefs supersede those of Jesus Christ. The Bible describes the antichrist as someone who will fill the world with wickedness but be conquered by a second coming of Christ.
Guatemala’s Congress labeled him a terrorist, and immigration officials have been instructed to refuse him entry to the country. Honduras and El Salvador have also banned him.
“Many have told me that I shouldn’t pay attention to a crazy man like him, but Hitler was also crazy and look what he did,” said Julio Morales, the congressman who proposed the resolution declaring Miranda a terrorist. “We took this measure because they have burned crosses, images of Christ in other countries and demonstrated in front of an evangelical church in Guatemala, just to create confrontation.”
It was not clear, however, if the government would be able to block Miranda’s private jet from landing. His right-hand man, Carlos Cestero, said Miranda has been in Guatemala at least 14 times in the past decade — before he declared himself the antichrist.
Followers see Miranda as a savior. Critics say he is a dangerous cult leader.
“What is more evil than all the exorbitant titles associated with him is the power he exercises over his followers,” said Daniel Alvarez, an instructor in the department of religious studies at Florida International University who has studied the movement. “He wants attention, shock value, and he’s always trying to top what he did before.”
Miranda, who lives in Miami, founded the Growing in Grace church in 1986 and based the church in suburban Doral. He preaches to followers in some 35 nations, mostly in Latin America.
Hundreds have followed his lead by getting “666” tattoos. The number 666 is often associated with the Antichrist or the devil.
In a tidy shop in an upscale, Guatemala City neighborhood, 18-year-old Andrea Recinos hunched over as a tattoo artist carved “666” across her back, decorating the number with angel wings.
“I wanted to show my love to the apostle,” she said, referring to Miranda. “I wanted to show the whole world that I am an antichrist.”
Other followers get “SSS” tattoos, referring to Miranda’s motto of “Salvo, siempre salvo,” or “Saved, always saved.” He believes sinning is impossible because Christ died for the sins of mankind.
Cestero said some of the sect’s members donate 50 percent to 80 percent of their earnings to Growing in Grace, often in appreciation of the church’s message that nothing is sinful.
“When someone is thankful, they show it by giving a gift, and the people are thankful for the liberty given to them,” he said.