Church makes airwaves

BBC / August 3, 2000

A controversial Christian sect has bought a London radio station from Harrods owner Mohamed Al Fayed. The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God preaches that diseases are caused by demons and has an estimated 6,000,000 followers worldwide. Its Brazilian founder is facing corruption allegations. The BBC's Americas Regional Editor Robert Plummer looks at the church's chequered history.

Brazil is well-known as the largest Roman Catholic country in the world, but during the past quarter of a century, North American-style evangelical Protestant sects like the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God have been winning converts in droves. Since the Universal Church's foundation in 1977 by self-styled Bishop Edir Macedo, it has managed to win more than 3 million members in Brazil alone - many of them from the very poorest sectors of society, attracted by the church's emphasis on personal responsibility and empowerment in a country often beset by fatalism. However, the church has courted controversy with its views on issues such as homosexuality, which it regards as a disease that can be cured by prayer, and Mr Macedo has been criticised for forcing members to pay 10% of their income to the church - the so-called "dízima" or tithe.

Worried by the success of the Universal Church, Roman Catholics in Brazil have launched their own "charismatic" movement in an effort to bring the faith closer to the people. But Mr Macedo and his followers seem determined to take on the Catholic hierarchy in what some observers have, only half-jokingly, described as a holy war.

Nationwide anger

Take, for instance, the Universal Church's campaign for the abolition of the annual public holiday to honour Brazil's patron saint, Our Lady Aparecida, which falls on 12 October. Five years ago, one of its preachers, Sergio von Helder, sparked nationwide anger by kicking and punching an effigy of the saint during a broadcast on the church's own television station, TV Record. The rival Globo network fanned the flames of Roman Catholic outrage by re-transmitting the scene during its main nightly news bulletin, prompting some members of the faithful to disrupt the Universal Church's services and even to burn effigies of Mr von Helder.

TV Globo, whose founder Roberto Marinho has close links with senior conservative Catholic clerics in Brazil, subsequently raised the stakes by broadcasting videotaped footage which it said showed Mr Macedo counting piles of dollars and staying in luxury hotels. The Universal Church's purchase of Liberty Radio is unlikely to bring a similar battle of the airwaves to London - but the experience in Brazil shows that the church sees control of the media as crucial in its campaign to win over more tithe-paying followers.

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