Temple in Brazil Appeals to a Surge in Evangelicals

The New York Times/July 24, 2014

By Simon Romero

Sao Paulo, Brazil -- It occupies an entire block in this teeming megacity: a 10,000-seat rendition of Solomon’s Temple.

Towering in sharp relief against the graffiti-splattered tenements nearby, it beckons with monumental walls of stone imported from Israel and the flags of the dozens of countries where its owner, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, is nourishing an evangelical Christian empire.

A helicopter landing pad will allow Edir Macedo, the 69-year-old media magnate who founded the Universal Church in a Rio de Janeiro funeral home in 1977, to drop in for sermons. The sprawling 11-story complex features other flourishes, too, like an oasis of olive trees similar to the garden of Gethsemane near Jerusalem, and more than 30 columns soaring toward the heavens.

“The Universal Church spared no expense,” said Rogério Araújo, the architect for the project, which is scheduled to be inaugurated on July 31. On a tour of the site, he added, “We sought to build a colossus, something that would make people stop and gaze, and that’s what we delivered.”

The replica of Solomon’s Temple, which took four years to build at a cost of about $300 million, captures the surging growth of evangelical faiths in Brazil. Although this country of 200 million people still has more Roman Catholics than any other nation, the number of evangelicals in Brazil climbed to 22 percent of the population in 2010 from 15 percent in 2000, according to census figures.

Large evangelical churches, particularly Pentecostal institutions like the Universal Church, are also wielding greater political clout across Brazil, reflecting a sizable evangelical voting bloc in Congress and the efforts of candidates across the political spectrum to appeal to evangelical voters in the presidential elections this year.

Brazil’s leftist president, Dilma Rousseff, is expected to be here for the inauguration of the temple, underscoring how she draws support for her governing coalition from a bloc of conservative evangelical leaders, including Mr. Macedo’s nephew, Marcelo Crivella, a Universal Church pastor and gospel singer who until recently was the minister of fishing.

No one has reshaped Brazil’s religious landscape quite like Mr. Macedo. A religious broadcaster and founder of the church, Mr. Macedo now travels by private jet on a special diplomatic passport (a privilege also allowed in Brazil for high-ranking Vatican officials), espousing prosperity theology and Pentecostal tenets like exorcism and faith healing.

With a personal fortune sometimes estimated at $1.2 billion, Mr. Macedo rose from obscurity through his control of Rede Record, one of Brazil’s largest television networks, and his aggressive expansion of the Universal Church, during which he has fought accusations of corruption, including tax evasion and money laundering.

Mr. Macedo was jailed for 11 days in 1992 on accusations of charlatanism and fraud. He has successfully fended off other criminal investigations, including allegations by prosecutors that he and other church leaders siphoned off donations from followers to enrich themselves. In the past year, he has cultivated a somewhat wizardly appearance, growing a flowing gray beard while occasionally donning what appears to be a skullcap like those worn by many observant Jews.
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The replica of Solomon’s Temple includes several menorahs inside the structure, where sermons will be given, in addition to a large menorah near the entrance that resembles the one in front of the Knesset, Israel’s legislature. The flag of Israel also flies nearby, alongside those of the Universal Church, Brazil and the United States, among dozens of other countries.

“There is just one biblical faith; it is impossible to disassociate Christianity from its Jewish roots,” said Cássia Duarte, a spokeswoman for the Universal Church. She emphasized that Mr. Macedo had been absolved in an array of judicial investigations into corruption allegations, strengthening the church’s “preaching of the gospel.”

Scholars say that the Universal Church’s promotion of Jewish symbolism in its replica of Solomon’s Temple stems from a quest for historical legitimacy in a church that is just 37 years old. The original Solomon’s Temple is thought to have been constructed in ancient Jerusalem by King Solomon around 1000 B.C. and destroyed about four centuries later in a siege led by a Babylonian king.

“Macedo was a pioneer in seeing symbols and rituals connected to the Old Testament and Judaism as linchpins in the creation of a church capable of capturing hearts and minds,” said Rodrigo Franklin de Sousa, a specialist in biblical history at Mackenzie University in São Paulo.

So far, leaders in Brazil’s Jewish community have generally taken a relaxed approach to the new Solomon’s Temple. “On the one hand, there’s the favorable way in which Jewish culture and history are treated in the structure,” said Nilton Bonder, a Brazilian rabbi whose writings on spiritual themes are widely published. “On the other, there’s the bizarre aspect of the project’s dimensions and aggressive marketing.”

The temple will be one of Brazil’s largest religious structures, making the iconic Christ the Redeemer overlooking Rio de Janeiro, which is only about half as tall, look like a trinket in comparison.

“The monumental temple will be a powerful symbol both of Brazil as the epicenter of global Pentecostalism and of the Universal Church as the leading congregation challenging the Catholic Church in Brazil,” said R. Andrew Chesnut, an expert on Latin American religions at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The project is already rallying support among some Universal Church worshipers. “I get thrilled just by seeing the temple in a photograph,” said Mauricea dos Santos Ribeiro, 72, a retired bank employee who frequents a branch of the church in Rio de Janeiro. She said that a group from her congregation was planning a trip here to see the temple. “I’m counting the days until we go.”

As if emphasizing Brazil’s competitive religious landscape, the temple dwarfs two other churches located just across the street, one Catholic and the other operated by another Pentecostal group.

While the Universal Church projects its influence through Mr. Macedo’s television network and its web of operations in more than 100 countries, including about 60,000 worshipers in the United States, the institution faces important rivals in Brazil that have adopted similar expansion strategies.

Ricardo Mariano, a sociologist at the University of São Paulo, said that the Universal Church recently lost some ground in Brazil, with members declining to about 1.8 million in 2010 from about 2.1 million in 2000, even as Brazil’s evangelical Christians grew in proportion to the rest of the population during that time.

If the new Solomon’s Temple is meant to lure new attention to the Universal Church, that strategy is working.

Passers-by stop in front of it day and night. Some take pictures with their cellphones. Many stare at it in amazement, expressing their reactions on a crowded sidewalk where watchmen, described as “Guardians of the Temple” on their uniforms, patrol the entrance.

“The temple is so enormous, so beautiful, but also so ostentatious,” Solange Barbosa de Nascimento, 58, a seamstress who worships at another Brazilian evangelical church called Peace and Love, said one recent morning. “I wonder if they could have spent all that money another way, just caring for the poor.”

Mariana Simões contributed reporting from Rio de Janeiro.

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