Brazil charges church leaders with embezzling millions from poor

Three leaders of Universal Church of the Kingdom of God accused of laundering cash through offshore bank accounts

The Guardian/September 13, 2011

Three leading members of one of Brazil's most powerful churches have been accused of laundering millions in church donations and using worshippers' money for personal gain.

The charges, unveiled on Monday by São Paulo's public prosecutor, relate to 404m reals (£150m) allegedly obtained from mostly impoverished churchgoers by leaders at Brazil's Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.

The money was subsequently channelled out of the country via a network of offshore bank accounts and money changers, federal prosecutors claimed.

Among those charged is Bishop Edir Macedo, a controversial televangelist who founded the church in 1977, and his financial director, Alba Maria Silva da Costa.

Luís Martins de Oliveira, the prosecutor behind the case, claimed followers were tricked into handing over money to the church through "false promises and threats that spiritual and economic assistance would only be bestowed upon those who made financial sacrifices for the church".

Prosecutors claim that although the church claimed to have received around £1.85bn in donations between 2003 and 2006, the actual sum could be much higher.

The charges also allege the church opened two offshore accounts in the early 1990s, in the Cayman Islands and in Jersey, to move donations out of the country.

The Universal Church was founded in northern Rio and today claims a worldwide congregation of 8 million followers.

Church leaders promote "prosperity theology" – through which committed believers are told their faith and regular, generations donations can help them achieve material wealth.

But corruption scandals, including claims that donations were used to buy luxury goods and property, have earned the church many critics.

The church's preachers are also notorious for their open hostility towards Brazil's gay community and African-Brazilian religions.

But Macedo's church also boasts huge support and packed pews have brought incredible wealth.

The church owns one of Brazil's top media outlets and "temples" in Europe, the US, Africa and Asia.

The bishop's blog is written in English, French and Spanish as well as his native Portuguese. With an estimated personal fortune of at least £1.3bn, Macedo leads the charge in promoting "prosperity theology".

Earlier this month, he directed blog readers to an interview with "the US's first billionaire" – oil tycoon John D Rockefeller.

In the blog post, Macedo pointed out that when Rockefeller died in 1937 he had accrued a fortune equivalent to 12 times that of the Microsoft founder, Bill Gates. Rockefeller had also been a generous contributor to his church, Macedo noted.

The church is currently splashing out on a replica of Solomon's Temple in São Paulo that will cost an estimated £130m.

The "mega-church" will have space for 10,000 worshippers and will house a replica of the Ark of the Covenant.

In a statement, the Universal Church rejected Monday's accusations.

"We cannot talk about something we know nothing about," the statement said.

"But from what we can tell through the media, these are the same old accusations … that have always been shown to be untrue."

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