U.S. judge sends Brazil evangelical leaders to jail

Reuters/August 17, 2007

Brasilia -- A judge in Miami sentenced two of Brazil's best-known evangelical church leaders on Friday to 10 months confinement for using a Bible and their child's backpack to smuggle cash into the United States.

Estevam Hernandes and Sonia Moraes Hernandes, the husband-and-wife founders of the Reborn in Christ Church, pleaded guilty in exchange for leniency in sentencing to charges of smuggling more than $56,000 into a Miami airport.

"They were both given 10-month sentences split between house arrest and jail time," said a law clerk for Federico Morena, chief judge of the Florida Southern District Court.

Morena ordered Estevam Hernandes to begin serving his five months in jail on Monday, while his wife remains under house arrest in Miami, where the couple have children. After five months, the two will switch.

The couple's arrest in Miami last January fanned concerns about fraud at fast-growing evangelical churches in Brazil, the world's most-populous Catholic nation.

While most of Brazil's 185 million people still describe themselves as Catholic, evangelical and neo-evangelical churches have attracted some 26 million followers, or 15 percent of the population, in recent decades.

The churches raise millions in revenue from their mostly poor followers via television programs and church services.

The Hernandes couple are the wealthy owners of a network of radio and television stations and more than 1,100 churches. Prosectors say they also have significant real estate holdings, including a luxury apartment in Miami.

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