Church offers eternal salvation - for a price

Source One News, New Zealand/March 15, 2012

A 'pay and pray' movement in some churches, known as Prosperity Gospel, has drawn hundreds of followers to one church in south Auckland but left others disaffected and angry.

Headed by Bishop Marcelo Rocha, the Universal Church of the Kingdom Of God has been in south Auckland for seven years.

Associate Professor Peter Lineham from Massey University told Close Up that he believes the Brazilian-based church is a sect.

"I think a sect is precisely a group where you have confined control - certain people are in and certain people are out - and the in people have a knowledge that the others don't have."

The New Zealand church offers four services a day to hundreds of followers, often asking its members to give to God for his blessings.

But some disenchanted former members of the church say they want the practices exposed.

Lineham said the NZ group is part of an international organisation involving 120 countries.

"In about 77 countries, especially poor countries in Africa, they've (the church) had a big impact," he said.

Former member is Vineeta Velu told Close Up tonight that most of the south Auckland church members are Indians, along with some Tongans and Samoans.

"Mostly Indians who doesn't have visa," she adds.

Some members have given tens of thousands of dollars a year, their cars and even their homes in order for God to answer their prayers.

The custom is known as the Prosperity Gospel, where the more you give in sacrificial donations the more they say you will receive in return.

"In the prosperity gospel, especially in this form, this Brazilian group, in its origins they're strongly preoccupied by making money," Lineham said.

"What becomes very unethical is if you don't ask what is the impact of the giving on the people who are giving," he said.

Velu said the church insisted people had to give something of value.

"Marcello (bishop) tells us 'you have to sacrifice something which really hurts you, it should really hurt you - the thing you love you have to sacrifice to God. If you don't give you don't get nothing, you will go to hell'," she said.

"I thought 'OK God I give you everything I got' in return I want everything better than what I got."

The mother of six paid a high price for her two years in the church, saying that along with her estranged husband Danny they gave about $50,000 on top of their tithes, as well as expensive jewelery and an $8500 car.

"I lost everything. I lost my house, my car, my business, my family, everything," she said.

She said it was the wedge that drove her and husband Danny apart, and while she has left the church, he still goes.

"We don't get any help from him anymore. He always says 'I don't have money' but sometimes my kids go 'Mum, Dad has given the money to church."

But Velu said she does not want sympathy, and is speaking out because she wants to make sure other families don't end up in the same situation.

"I have lost everything, that's why I'm telling the truth," she said.

In a statement to Close Up, The Universal Church of the Kingdom Of God said the donation of the family car was voluntary according to Pacific Island custom and the Bishop had offered the car back to Danny.

The statement also said that a marital dispute is behind the accusations against the church, and that Velu phoned the Bishop to say she did not want the car back and that she regretted complaining.

The church claims the couple have tried to have the complaint withdrawn, and that it has been distressing for clergy and churchgoers.

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