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The endless list of scandals involving Brazil’s multinational church

. Sep 29, 2020
universal church kingdom god Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. Photo: IURD

That Evangelical churches have carved out a significant niche of influence in Brazilian public life is no secret. Neither is it news that many of these organizations are tied up in corruption schemes involving massive amounts of money. In Rio de Janeiro, prosecutors are investigating an alleged money laundering racket connected to the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, which is among the largest Evangelical charismatic institutions in the Americas.

Suspicions stemmed from a report from Brazil’s money laundering enforcement agency Coaf, which identified the “atypical” transfer of BRL 5.9 billion (USD 1.05 billion) between May 2018 and April 2019 in the church’s accounts. State prosecutors say there is sufficient evidence to affirm the organization is being used to launder large quantities of funds obtained from corruption in the Rio de Janeiro municipal government.

</p> <p>Rio Mayor <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-37819512">Marcelo Crivella</a> — who last week was made ineligible for public office after committing electoral crimes — is a licensed pastor of the Universal Church.</p> <p>According to investigators, there is a &#8220;bribery headquarters&#8221; within the municipal administration, allegedly led by Mauro Macedo, who is Mr. Crivella&#8217;s political campaign coordinator and was implicated in plea-bargain testimony as part of Operation Car Wash. He is accused of tapping up business owners to take part in corruption schemed within Rio city hall, and is the cousin of Edir Macedo, who founded the Universal Church back in 1977.&nbsp;</p> <p>With 8 million followers in Brazil alone, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God has 4,700 temples spread across 172 countries — making it <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-latin-america-14743356">even more of a multinational company</a> than McDonald’s, which has restaurants in 118 countries. Edir Macedo is also well known for being a media magnate, despite Brazilian law forbidding churches from owning TV or radio networks. RecordTV, the second-largest free-to-air television channel in Brazil, is owned by Mr. Macedo.&nbsp;</p> <p>The self-proclaimed bishop also has his own political party — the Republicanos party, of which President Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s sons Flávio and Carlos are members — as well as influence in Congress, the Executive, and the mayor&#8217;s office of Rio de Janeiro. And Edir Macedo is never far from power. All of Brazil&#8217;s presidents in recent decades have enjoyed his support and shaken hands with him at some point.</p> <iframe src="https://open.spotify.com/embed-podcast/episode/3TkaVLHEiiOY19DYkdquJc" width="100%" height="232" frameborder="0" allowtransparency="true" allow="encrypted-media"></iframe> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p>His political views appear to change according to convenience. He once associated ex-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva with the devil, before campaigning alongside him once he was in power. His alliance with Lula&#8217;s center-left Workers&#8217; Party was quickly scrapped as soon as ex-President Dilma Rousseff was impeached in 2016.&nbsp;</p> <p>Despite having members of his church within Ms. Rousseff&#8217;s cabinet, he came out in support of the Michel Temer government the day after her impeachment, with another ally appointed to the cabinet. With the election of Jair Bolsonaro in 2018, Edir Macedo and his church became even more powerful, allowing the organization to shield its most scandalous corruption schemes, which are numerous and certainly not restricted to Rio de Janeiro.</p> <h2>Convicted con man and charlatan</h2> <p>The rise of the Universal Church came at the end of the 1980s, culminating in the election of Fernando Collor de Mello as president in 1989, who Edir Macedo supported against &#8220;the devil&#8221; Lula. Three years later, the first scandal surfaced. The bishop spent 12 days in jail in May 1992 as part of an investigation into swindling and charlatanism. The principal accusation was that Mr. Macedo had amassed a large fortune thanks to his work at the head of the Universal Church.</p> <p>Prosecutors evaluated Mr. Macedo&#8217;s net worth as BRL 100 million back in 1992. He was eventually let off the hook, with one court saying the fact he did not declare his assets on his income tax return was &#8220;not relevant.&#8221;</p> <p>In other cases, Edir Macedo is accused of instigating violence against Afro-Brazilian religions, followers of which the bishop has called &#8220;devil lovers.&#8221; Members of the Universal Church were tied up in cases of executions, torture, and sexual assault, with the victims being followers of Afro-Brazilian faiths.</p> <p>One such case involved the rape, torture, and murder of a 14-year-old boy in 2001, committed by pastors from the Universal Church. At the time, the organization washed its hands of any potential involvement in the crime, stating it was an individual act of the perpetrators.</p> <h2>Satanism in Zambia and bible-burning in Madagascar&nbsp;</h2> <p>Controversy linked to the Universal Church has not been limited to Brazil. The organization began expanding to Africa in the 2000s, before it was targeted by a series of protests in Zambia for &#8220;practicing satanism.&#8221; The Zambian government even <a href="http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/4485222.stm">banned</a> the church in 2005 and requested the extradition of two Brazilian pastors, but courts overturned this decision and the institution has operated normally ever since.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>That same year, courts in Madagascar also prohibited the Universal Church from working in that country, ordering the deportation of the institution&#8217;s pastors. This move was in connection to allegations that the church was involved in the burning of bibles and other religious objects.&nbsp;</p> <h2>Deaths and forced sterilization in Angola&nbsp;</h2> <p>Elsewhere in the southern portion of Africa, the Universal Church has had a presence in the Portuguese-speaking country of Angola since 1992. In 2003, its operations were suspended for 60 days due to an accident at an event hosted by the church inside the Estádio da Cidadela football stadium in the capital city Luanda, which resulted in the death of 16 people. An inquiry concluded that the event was oversold, which was blamed on the organization&#8217;s false advertising. Advertisement for the event urged spectators to &#8220;bring their whole families&#8221; in order to end &#8220;all of [their] problems in life.&#8221;</p> <p>In November 2019, Angolan pastors from the Universal Church staged a rebellion. Occupying the organization&#8217;s 300 temples across the country, they protested against Edir Macedo&#8217;s Brazilian representatives in Angola, making numerous criminal allegations, including money smuggling, forced vasectomies, and racial discrimination.</p> <p>Prosecutors in Luanda investigated claims that pastors and their wives were forbidden from pursuing academic, scientific and technical qualifications, and that minutes of Universal Church meetings had been doctored. Brazilian bishops fled from the country, while Edir Macedo lobbied President Bolsonaro and Congress to intervene in favor of the church in Angola.</p> <p>In the same month, a popular uprising resulted in Universal Church temples being vandalized in the African island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe. A São Toméan pastor was arrested in Côte d&#8217;Ivoire after leaking messages exposing the church&#8217;s abuse of its African employees. The organization called the claims &#8220;absurd lies.&#8221;

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Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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