Brazil evangelicals: persecuted visionaries or big-time con artists?

Associated Press/April 29, 2007
By Stan Lehman

Sao Paulo, Brazil -- A Brazilian couple wanted back home for embezzlement after building an evangelical empire with hundreds of thousands of followers and 1,200 temples face charges of cash-smuggling in a Miami, Florida court.

Their adoring followers refer to them as Apostle Estevam and the Bishop Sonia. But Brazilian authorities say Estevam Hernandes Filho and Sonia Haddad Moraes Hernandes used the faithful's donations to buy mansions and horse farms in Brazil and the United States.

Brazil wants to extradite the couple from Florida, where they await trial on federal charges they smuggled US$56,000 (euro41,000) cash -- including US$9,000 (euro6,600) stashed in a Bible and US$10,000 (euro7,300) in their son's backpack -- on a flight from Sao Paulo. A Monday court hearing in Miami is scheduled.

The two pleaded not guilty and have been confined to a 4,634-square-foot (430-square-meter) house in an upscale Boca Raton gated community on the edge of the Everglades, wearing electronic ankle bracelets.

The former Xerox marketing executive and his wife started the Reborn in Christ Church in the back room of a Sao Paolo pizza parlor in 1986. Their evangelical empire now boasts newspapers, TV and radio stations, a recording company and the Brazilian patent on the English word "gospel."

The church claims hundreds of thousands of followers worldwide -- including international soccer star Kaka -- and some 1,200 temples in Brazil, the United States, Argentina and Italy. Its "March for Jesus" rally in Sao Paulo last year drew about 3 million people.

The Hernandeses' followers say the charges against them are part of the persecution of evangelicals in Brazil, the world's largest Roman Catholic country, and proof of demonic forces at work.

"I can't imagine anyone who can build a church like this one can be guilty of any evil. I feel the apostle and bishop are innocent and Jesus will prove them innocent," said Alessandra Vieira, 22, peddling bracelets outside the church's cavernous Sao Paulo temple.

Sao Paulo state prosecutor Jose Reinaldo Guimaraes Carneiro is seeking the couples' extradition on charges of money laundering, larceny, embezzlement and fraud. The couple allegedly built a personal fortune from parishioners' donations, which reportedly averaged 2 million reals (US$770,000; euro580,000) a month.

The couple rode a wave of popularity of evangelical Protestant churches with dynamic services appealing to younger, working- and middle-class Brazilians.

"They all preach the gospel of prosperity according to which the more one gives to God and the church, the better his or her chances to prosper," said Edin Sued Abumanssur, a religious studies professor at Sao Paulo's Catholic University.

He said the Hernandeses' legal woes are unlikely to damage the church's popularity because followers view them as martyrs.

"The average parishioner feels that he completes his part of his prosperity bargain with God when he seals his donation in the contribution envelope," he said. "What happens to his money afterward is of no concern."

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