Evangelical leader, 9 others charged in Brazil
SAO PAULO (AP) – The founder of one of Brazil’s biggest evangelical churches siphoned off billions of dollars in donations from his mostly poor followers to buy jewelry, TV stations and other businesses for himself, authorities charged Tuesday.
A Brazilian judge accepted charges from prosecutors alleging that Bishop Edir Macedo and nine other people linked to the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God committed fraud against the church itself and against its numerous followers.
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The complaint is the result of a two-year investigation by the Special Operation Group to Combat Organized Crime (Gaeco).
Among the accused are Edir Macedo, Alba Maria da Costa, Edilson da Conceição Gonzales, Honorilton Gonçalves da Costa, Jerome Ferreira Alves, Joao Batista Ramos da Silva, João Luis Dutra Leite, Maurício Albuquerque e Silva, Osvaldo de Jesus Scriorilli and Veríssimo.
Prosecutors charge that money collected for charitable work, evangelism and building funds was used instead to purchase companies. Those companies in turn were allegedly used to launder money, which was then loaned to Macedo and other church leaders, and used to purchase additional businesses, as well as real estate, aircraft and a TV station.
Two of the companies involved are said to have been responsible for moving and concealing more than $71 million.
The public prosecutor has said that Brazil is considering filing formal requests with several countries for cooperation in researching the church’s financial dealings. Those countries eventually include all countries where the UCKG operates, including in almost all Africa countries.
The indictment against the church leaders says the 32-year old church is present in 172 countries. In Brazil alone the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG) has over 4,000 congregations in which 8 million people follow almost 10 thousand pastors.
Authorities claim that Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus, as it is known in Brazil, raises approximately U.S. $ 1.4 billion per year in donations.
In some countries the church works under a local version of the name ‘Stop Suffering’.
The church promotes so-called Word-Faith theology. Also known as “Name-in-Claim-it,” “Health and Wealth Gospel,” “Positive Confession,” and “Prosperity Gospel,” Word of Faith theology includes the notion that — just as God created things by speaking them into existence — believers create things and situations, both negative and positive, by our words.
It places a heavy emphasis on so-called ‘Seed-Faith’ offerings. This doctrine claims that to 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 is ‘sown’ by donating it to a church or by sending it to an evangelist. Many of preachers who poromote this properity teaching promise the givers will receive various blessings, often including a ‘hundred-fold return.’
The UCKG’s focus on money has long been highlighted in news articles such as this one from the New York Post:
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.”’
In January 2008 the UCKG filed a flood of lawsuits against an investigative reporter and the newspaper for which she works, Folha de S. Paulo, the largest daily in Brazil.
Article 19, the Global Campaign for Free Expression, stated:
ARTICLE 19 strongly condemns the wave of civil defamation lawsuits filed by members of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God against journalist Elvira Lobato and her employer, the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo.
By 30 January 2008, pastors and individual members of the evangelical church had filed more than 35 separate lawsuits against the journalist and the newspaper, in 16 different states and more than 30 towns in Brazil, the newspaper informed
The members of the church argue in the lawsuits that they felt offended by an article published by Folha on 15 December 2007. In the article, journalist Elvira Lobato reported on the various acquisitions of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God over the past three decades, including 23 TV stations, 40 radio stations, and at least 19 companies registered under the names of church members and bishops. The article also reported that contributions by church members might have been sent to tax havens outside of Brazil.
Currently in Brazil there are a number of court cases in which former UCKG members demand the return of their donations.