Sao Goncalo, Brazil -- As Bishop Marcelo Crivella cleansed a woman of the evil spirits inside her, her arms flapped like a bird's wings and she let out a deep and mournful wail that filled the night sky.
It was a typical evening of prayer and weeping among thousands recently in this poor suburb of Rio de Janeiro, one of many communities that has been swept by a controversial brand of teaching within evangelical churches called prosperity theology. Like their mainstream evangelical Christian counterparts that have grown rapidly in Latin America during the past 20 years, the prosperity congregations preach righteous living, faith healing and miracles. The prosperity churches, however, set themselves apart by urging worshipers to give money as a way to garner God's blessings.
The teaching was first popularized in the United States by some television evangelists who eventually came under increasing scrutiny and in some cases prosecution. Now the message is sprouting up from Brazil to Mexico to even parts of Africa. It is viewed by critics as a particularly disturbing trend among the poor people desperate for economic hope.
"It is probably the single most dangerous religious trend because it is causing further impoverishment of the poor in the Third World," said Hector Avalos, an associate professor of religious studies at Iowa State University. "It is a religious version of Wall Street," Avalos added. "It focuses on people's need and greed. You give money to the church, and you are supposed to get multiple returns on your investment."
In countries with widespread poverty, the message has found a ready following, but some observers say the only people benefiting are the church's leaders. "These churches give a theological justification for wild capitalism," said Ariovaldo Ramos, president of the Brazilian Evangelical Association, which has issued a declaration criticizing prosperity churches.
One of the most popular churches, the Universal Church of God's Kingdom, where Crivella is a top bishop, boasts 3 million members in Brazil. The church also has another 3 million followers in more than 80 other countries, including Colombia, Venezuela, Panama and the United States in cities such as Washington, New York and Chicago.
Experts say prosperity churches constitute 20 percent to 30 percent of Brazil's evangelical churches, which have an estimated 18 million members. Alternative to Catholicism The leaders of the prosperity churches say they are filling a void in many predominantly Catholic nations in Latin America by providing an alternative for people whose spirits are not lifted by the Catholic faith.
"Brazil is passing through a silent revolution," said Romildo Ribeiro Soares, a soft-spoken preacher who commands the television airwaves several hours per week a week for God's Grace International Church, headquartered in Rio. Soares has some 700 churches and claims a half-million followers in three countries. His Sunday services in Brazil's largest city, Sao Paulo, usually draw more than 10,000 people.
Soares says he is often used as a conduit for God's miracles and that he has touched people and cured diseases from diabetes to AIDS. At the end of his preaching to packed crowds comes the time for the offering. A usual suggested offering is $15, or about 20 percent of a monthly salary for a Brazilian receiving a minimum wage.
His church's magazine also prints testimonials from people who say they gave money and received blessings. Soares, who owns a publishing house and whose church runs other enterprises, says the church's money is reinvested. The church's financial data are not public record.
While he says the churches operate independently, Soares is the brother-in-law of Edir Macedo, the controversial founder of Universal. Macedo also is Crivella's uncle. Despite much criticism, some analysts say the prosperity churches are credited with helping many people change their lives, from kicking drug habits to reuniting families.
"The churches give people a high self-esteem even when they are in dire circumstances because they see by joining the church, they are beginning a new life with Christ," said Clara Mafra, a Rio anthropologist and professor who is writing a book about Universal.
"The churches are like an emergency hospital for the soul," she said. Crivella has been largely responsible for much of Universal's spread into Africa, where he spent seven years and where the church claims hundreds of thousands of followers in South Africa alone.
Crivella also runs a program to help the poor in northeastern Brazil, using his proceeds as a gospel recording artist to help with the effort. "We will continually grow," Crivella said, "because we have the right message." "We tell [our followers] to give their best" in terms of money, he added. "It is just as God has given. It is a sacrifice when you love someone to give the best you can."
But many have left Universal and blame the church for their economic problems. Maria de Fatima Santos remembers her minister telling worshipers that if they just gave to the church and believed in God, they would have a life full of joy, no sickness, even wealth.
Santos gave her money, she says, but the minister kept asking for more. After years of giving she was broke and her husband continued to be an alcoholic. She eventually lost faith and left Universal. "He kept insisting people should give more money, and now I have more problems," said Santos, 41.
"Eventually, my husband felt more and more diminished because the demons they said he had inside him never abandoned him," she said. "They said alcoholism and finding wealth were easy to solve. Now I see that it is not so easy."
Crivella, who says he earns $120,000 a year, admits that some Universal ministers have pestered members for money, but he regards those as a small minority. Those in question have received counseling on better methods to work with their followers, he said.
The money gathered by the Universal, Crivella added, is used for its world evangelism and paying its 15,000 employees. Published reports estimate Universal takes in $1 billion annually.
Universal owns Brazil's third most popular television network, newspapers, a bank, radio stations and other properties.
Macedo, Universal's founder, began his first services in an old funeral parlor 24 years ago and now lives in New York. He left Brazil after becoming the target of several highly publicized investigations, including embezzlement and fraud allegations, but was always exonerated by the courts.