Mired in controversy ... but Universal Church of the Kingdom of God growing rapidly

Jamaica Gleaner/January 9, 2011

The Brazil-based, fast-growing Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG), while mired in controversy, including charges of fraud, money laundering and racketeering, continues to expand at a rapid rate across the globe, including Jamaica.

The church's global membership is reported to be as many as 12 million, with over 12,000 pastors and some 7,000 temples in 176 different countries. In Brazil alone, the UCKG is said to have an estimated 5,000 congregations in which eight million people follow thousands of pastors. Its headquarters in Rio de Janeiro can accommodate 12,000 people; and there are plans to construct a US$200 million megachurch 10,000-seat replica of the great Solomon's Temple in the city of Sao Paulo, Brazil, within the next four years.

In Jamaica, the UCKG has fast taken deep root with a reported membership of 20,000 in 24 branches across the island. Headed by Bishop Claudio Botelho, they have announced plans to construct a grand three-storey cathedral in Half-Way-Tree, St Andrew, this year.

The UCKG website says it was formed in 1977 in Brazil, and owes its origins to a successful evangelistic programme conducted by Bishop Robert McAlister, a Canadian missionary in the Pentecostal tradition.

"Following an exploratory visit to the USA, the UCKG was established in New York in 1986. Today, there are churches in many other US cities. UCKG then developed its presence in Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Paraguay, Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, Chile, Guatemala and Ecuador. There are also churches in Jamaica, Trinidad and Guyana.

"In Europe, it is established in England, Portugal, Spain, France, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy, Switzerland and Poland. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the UCKG opened its doors in Germany and the end of communism enabled the church to provide churches for Russian and Romanian people.

"The first UCKG church in Africa opened in Angola in 1992. It is now active in South Africa, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Kenya, Lesotho, Ivory Coast, Malawi, Uganda and many other countries on the continent. In Asia, the UCKG is established in India, the Philippines and Japan, where the first 24-hour church is based."

Brazilian authorities have reported that Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus, as it is known in their country, raises approximately US$1.4 billion per year in donations and it is this capacity to raise funds that has drawn much attention.

Corruption charges

Throughout its 33-year history, members of the church's hierarchy have been charged with immoral and illegal deeds, including fraud, money laundering, quackery, tax evasion, bribery, witchcraft, and extracting money from supporters, often poor. It has also been riven by lawsuits, countersuits, and accusations of supernatural practices.

An Internet research has revealed several stories from the United States of America, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Belgium, Uganda, Mozambique, France and Brazil that have had public controversies surrounding the UCKG.

The Rick A. Ross Institute of New Jersey - a non-profit public resource Internet archive of information about cults, controversial groups and movements at culteducation.com - has documented some 65 reports and articles collected from across the world on the practices and activities of the UCKG and Macedo.

In 1992, founder and leader Bishop Macedo spent 11 days in a Brazilian jail on charges of tax evasion, fraud and illicit enrichment. Those charges were later dropped, but in 2009, the Brazilian prosecutors once again brought charges against him for fraud and money laundering, accusing him of siphoning off billions of dollars in donations.

The charges of fraud and money laundering are contained in a report by a Sao Paulo public prosecutor that was formally submitted to a Brazilian judge on Monday, August 10, 2009. The report claims 10 leading members of the church - including Macedo - used donations from followers to buy jewellery, property and cars.

The complaint is the result of a two-year investigation by Brazil's Special Operation Group to Combat Organised Crime (Gaeco). Prosecutors charged that money collected from their largely impoverished flock for charitable work, evangelism and building funds was instead used 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 US$71 million.

The UCKG has said that no charges against their founder and leader was ever proven and that it was felt within the church that this action was politically motivated.

Over the years, other UCKG leaders around the world have been arrested or charged with various fraud-related charges.

However, the church has managed to survive most of the probes and charges unscathed, with many prosecutors concluding that although their means were questionable, church members gave their donations voluntarily.

To those who are faithful believers in the doctrines of the church, they believe these stories and probes are merely attempts to persecute them. They are convinced that all problems can be solved with sacrifice and faith and it doesn't appear that these followers, who are mainly people of a lower-middle class background, will forfeit their beliefs any time soon.

However, eventually some of the members do become disillusioned and walk away from the faith when promise of prosperity is not forthcoming from their substantial offerings.

Pastor attacked

In October 2008, a Jamaican man was shot and killed by the police after he attacked and chopped a UCKG pastor at a local church in New Kingston. The pastor ran from the church to a nearby police post, where it was reported that the man pulled a knife and attacked a policeman who shot him. Friends and family of the man said he was told by the church that if he gave a substantial amount of money, his girlfriend, who had left him, would return. When this promise was not fulfilled he became enraged.

Ex-members have reported how they participated in scams to elicit money from members, whether by giving false testimonies of blessings or healing, purchasing olive oil from local supermarkets which is passed off as being blessed oil from Israel, or purchasing other token items from local stores, which are 'sold' to members as holy items from Israel.

Former pastors who have left the church have even written books, making accusations of vice, corruption, and greed among the church leadership.

Interestingly, the UCKG presents itself differently in each nation, at times even changing its doctrinal statement.

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