Today's Bible lesson, from the book of Daniel in the Old Testament, tells of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who were cast into an inferno but saved from the flames by their faith in God. Pastor Alejandro Pimentel from the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God spins the story with gusto, jumping onto chairs, gesturing dramatically and finally stepping into a makeshift tent, where he becomes Shadrach, standing in a mock inferno of red metallic foil. In Portuguese-accented Spanish, he assures his congregation of two dozen New York City Latinos, "You can be saved from the inferno by giving to God."
At that point, envelopes decorated with red flames are passed around. Though the congregants appear to be poor, most give at least $20, some as much as $50. This, however, is not enough for Pastor Alejandro. Those who give $50 more will earn seven days of prayers and blessings, he promises. No takers. How about $20 for three days of blessings? Several people come forward. The money is stuffed into a blue string bag.
Every day, similar services are under way from Lisbon to Sao Paulo to Maputo, Mozambique. The Brazil-based Universal Church of the Kingdom of God is one of the fastest growing Pentecostal movements in the world, with 3.5 million devoted adherents attending more than 2,200 "temples" in 34 countries. But the 19-year-old ministry is as controversial as it is popular. Its leader, self-ordained Bishop Edir Macedo Bezerra, and his lightly trained pastors are accused by critics of emptying their followers' pockets in the course of saving their souls. "They tell people that if they don't give, they'll go to hell," says Mario Justino, a former pastor living in New York City. "People are very afraid of the devil." Justino, who has written a critical book about the church called In the Corridors of the Kingdom, charges that many of the church's ministers are charlatans who live in luxury on the 2% to 10% of the weekly collection plate they take for themselves.
Founded in 1977 in a converted Rio de Janeiro funeral parlor, the Universal Church has in recent years siphoned millions of members--and reals--from the explosion of the Pentecostal Protestant movement, which boasts 35 million members in Brazil. With annual cash flow estimated at $750 million to $1 billion, Macedo has built up a secular Brazilian empire that includes a major TV network, 26 radio stations, two newspapers, a bank and a recording studio. In addition, the church's overseas branches have bought up prime urban real estate, starting with local cinemas that they convert into prayer halls.
The Universal Church's rising wealth and dubious fund-raising tactics have earned it close scrutiny. In January, Brazil's federal police launched a probe into allegations of foreign-exchange fraud, tax evasion and links to drug traffickers. Police staged surprise raids on the church's religious and corporate offices, hauling away 50 boxes of documents. Macedo, who conducts church business from a mansion in Purchase, New York, denies any impropriety, claiming he is being persecuted for his faith like his Protestant predecessor, Luther.
Brazilian police also have asked authorities in eight countries to help investigate the church. In the U.S., where Macedo has as many as 15,000 followers, officials would not comment on whether a probe is under way. In Portugal, where the church has at least 20,000 members, police are looking into its business transactions.
Beyond its legal troubles, the Universal Church is engaged in a titanic holy war with two of Brazil's most powerful institutions--the Roman Catholic Church and the Globo media conglomerate, run by billionaire businessman Roberto Marinho. The long-simmering feud with the Catholic hierarchy got red hot last October after a bizarre episode. In a TV appearance, Universal Church Bishop Sergio von Helde kicked, slapped and insulted a statue of Our Lady Aparecida, the patron saint of Brazil. "This is no saint," he told his viewers. "How can this ugly thing be compared with God?" The tape has been aired repeatedly, firing up Catholic hatred of the Universal Church.
The journalists of Marinho's communications empire have shown intense interest in Macedo since 1991, when he bought his TV Record network and became a competitor. The newspaper O Globo and powerful TV Globo have run a series of exposes of alleged Universal Church malefactions. Macedo's followers have retaliated by depicting Marinho, in rituals and ceremonies, as the devil incarnate.
There is no evidence that the scandal surrounding the Universal Church has cost it members. The Pentecostal formula--energetic singing, theatrical exorcisms and dramatic testimonies of miracle cures--has strong appeal for the Brazilian underclass. Moreover, like the other Protestant sects sweeping Latin America, the church promises riches in this world in return for faith and hard work. Affluence in this world, salvation in the next, and pass the collection plate, please.