Prosecutors sue to shut down Brazilian church over forced labor

They say the U.S.-based Word of Faith Fellowship and its leaders 'reduced people to a condition analogous to slavery.'

Associated Press/March 11, 2018

Sao Paulo — Brazilian labor prosecutors have filed suit to shut down a church and school with ties to the U.S.-based Word of Faith Fellowship, saying the church and its leaders “reduced people to a condition analogous to slavery.”

Brazilian authorities opened multiple investigations after The Associated Press reported in July that leaders of Word of Faith Fellowship in rural Spindale, North Carolina, created a pipeline of young Brazilian congregants who told the AP they were brought to the U.S. and forced to work for little or no pay.

The focus of the civil suit is Ministerio Evangelico Comunidade Rhema, Word of Faith’s branch in the city of Franco da Rocha, along with that branch’s church-run school and its two ministers, Solange da Silva Granieri Oliveira and Juarez de Souza Oliveira.

In the March 1 filing in a labor court in Sao Paulo state, prosecutors included extensive excerpts from depositions laying out harrowing details of a wide range of abuses within the Rhema church, including how long the marks from a beating with a ruler were evident on a child’s body.

Children and adults alike said they were worked to the point of exhaustion. One member reported sleeping only four hours a night for weeks on end, while others said they worked 12 hours at a stretch, often into the dead of night. All spoke of their fear of punishment, social isolation or separation from their families if they didn’t agree to work.

“In some cases, violence was used to ensure the ‘voluntary’ work,” the filing said.

In addition to asking a judge to dissolve the church and school and distribute its assets among congregants, the prosecutors seek to have the church pay a fine of at least $153,000 to a workers’ compensation fund and at least $15,000 to each victim.

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