Mexico City - "Abba, father," call out the people gathered in the meeting hall. They raise up their hands and stare enraptured at a television screen, where they are addressed by their spiritual leader, José Luis de Jesús Miranda, or as he calls himself, "the Man Jesus Christ."
Miranda, a Puerto Rican national based in the United States, founded his religious organisation, Ministerio Internacional Creciendo en Gracia (Growing in Grace International Ministry) in 1988. Also known as "The Government of God on Earth", the group is popularly referred to as the Antichrist or 666 Sect.
Over the last decade, Growing in Grace has amassed a growing following in the United States and throughout Latin America, preaching the imminence of the "transformation", a sort of Apocalypse.
"This is not a group that promotes devil worship. It is a group that rejects the validity of all Christian churches. They are convinced that the new 'Man Jesus Christ' will silence Christians after so many centuries of lies," Luis Santamaría, a Catholic priest and secretary of the Ibero-American Network for the Study of Sects (RIES), said in an interview with IPS.
The RIES, a Spanish-based network of religious experts from around the world, has published more than 60 articles about Growing in Grace in its newsletter since 2007.
Miranda’s background would seem to make him an unlikely candidate for the Messiah. Born Apr. 22, 1946 in Ponce, Puerto Rico, he was already a heroin addict at the age of 14, and spent time behind bars for robbery.
He founded his organisation in the southeastern U.S. city of Miami, Florida after having a vision in which he was purportedly merged with Jesus Christ. A year later he renamed himself "the Other", and then proclaimed himself "the Man Jesus Christ" in 2004, although he also claims to be the "Antichrist".
Myrna Cestero, a Puerto Rican bishop in the Growing in Grace ministry and the group’s highest-ranked representative in Mexico, told IPS that "other churches do not speak the truth because they preach a different gospel. They talk about sin, but when the Lamb of God appeared, he took away the sin of the world [according to the Bible]. They talk about the devil, but 'through death he might destroy him that had the power of death.'"
Growing in Grace claims to have around 100,000 followers in 300 congregations and 200 pastors in 30 countries, including Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, the United States and Spain.
Cestero says that there are at least 3,000 members in Mexico, where there are more than 20 different congregations.
Every Sunday, a church service is held in Cestero’s offices in a downtown Mexico City hotel. While the service is led by a minister, the highlight is the screening of a video of Miranda.
Growing in Grace believes that sin and the ten commandments do not exist, and that the devil was destroyed; his continued existence is merely a fabrication by the Vatican.
According to the "Nuevo diccionario de sectas y ocultismo" (New Dictionary of Sects and the Occult) published by Spanish religious expert César Vidal in 1998, Growing in Grace was "originally an evangelical church" which "has gradually evolved into a sect."
While the word "sect" can simply refer to "a body of persons adhering to a particular religious faith; a religious denomination," it is more commonly used to refer to a group that has broken away from a larger denomination, or to a cult or religious movement that shares particular - and often unorthodox - religious beliefs
The Vatican, for its part, defines a sect as "any religious group with a distinctive worldview of its own derived from, but not identical with, the teachings of a major world religion."
Growing in Grace members "take a few verses from the holy scriptures and use them out of context to back the outrageous tenets of their doctrine," said Santamaría.
Many of Miranda’s followers have tattoos with the number 666 or the initials SSS, which stand for "Salvo siempre salvo" (Safe always safe). In the Book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, attributed to the apostle John, 666 is the number of the "beast" or Antichrist, who will rise up as an adversary to Jesus Christ according to biblical prophecy.
There are a total of 7,280 religious organisations registered with the Mexican government’s Federal Registry of Religious Associations, of which 3,950 are Protestant, 3,180 are Catholic, while the remainder belong to other denominations such as Anglican or Mormon.
"We have to consider the breeding ground of this group, which, like so many others, is flourishing and spreading throughout Latin America in a setting of poverty and strong religious sentiment," commented Santamaría.
Growing in Grace held a national convention in Mexico in February and is organising an international convention for later this year, which will be attended by Miranda, who was denied entry in countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in 2007 and 2008.
Miranda’s image has been tarnished by accusations of siphoning funds donated to the sect by its followers to purchase real estate and luxury goods for his own use and to support his first wife and children. Details of these financial misdoings came to light during the stormy divorce proceedings with his second wife, Josefina Torres, in March 2009.
Growing in Grace followers donate a percentage of their income to the organisation based on the "theology of prosperity," which holds that the more money they give to God, the more blessings they will receive.
"The children of God have already been chosen and are predestined to have faith and to believe - not in individuals or religions, but in the gospel," stated Cestero.
As well as spreading his message through traditional media like print publications and radio, Miranda has established his own television station, Telegracia, which broadcasts out of Colombia to more than 200 cities by cable television service and over the internet.