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Fraud allegations rock Brazil church

The hip Renascer draws well-heeled youths and their parents into the fold. Authorities call it a `criminal enterprise.'

March 18, 2007|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL — It was Saturday night and the cool crowd in the upscale Moema neighborhood was stepping out -- to church.

"We are not square," a self-proclaimed reformed addict and former biker turned preacher said amid a blur of strobe and laser lights, "because Jesus is not square!"

Welcome to the Reborn in Christ Church, the hippest of Brazil's booming "neo-Pentecostal" denominations, which fuse faith and sales in a high-pressure pitch at churches, over the airwaves and on the Internet.

Renascer, as the church is known in Portuguese, was a pioneer, introducing services in roller skates and Christian mega-concerts and wooing celebrities in a slick and successful campaign aimed largely at middle- class youths.

But a funny thing happened along the sect's rock-and-rolling journey toward salvation.

Brazilian authorities have accused Renascer of massive fraud, calling the church a personal enrichment scheme for its leaders and their cronies.

The sensational case has focused attention on the church and its financial empire at a time when an evangelical boom has altered the cultural, social and political landscape of Latin America's largest nation. Protestant denominations introduced by U.S. missionaries more than a century ago have cut into the Vatican's traditional primacy and now account for 15% of the population.

The fastest-growing are the so-called neo-Pentecostal sects that practice a singular mix of old-time religion and contemporary marketing. These include Renascer and its more established competition, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, which also has faced accusations of funding irregularities.

In January, Renascer's husband-and-wife founders -- "Apostle" Estevam Hernandes, 52, an ex-marketing executive who blasted saxophone riffs from the pulpit, and "Bishopess" Sonia Haddad Moraes Hernandes, 48, a homemaker-turned-theologian -- were arrested on cash-smuggling charges as they arrived in Miami.

U.S. customs authorities said the couple were carrying $56,467, including $9,088 stuffed into a Bible, $9,700 in a CD case, and $10,000 in their son's backpack.

The pair, later freed on bail, had been flagged on a U.S. watch list "for suspicion of money laundering and fraud related to Brazilian organized crime," a U.S. affidavit said.

Brazilian authorities call the church a "criminal enterprise" and are trying to extradite the couple. They accuse them of siphoning off millions of dollars in followers' funds for personal enrichment. Prosecutors say the couple used donations to buy homes, horse farms and other luxuries, as well as to set up shell companies and laundering schemes to conceal their "great riches."

Allegations denied

"They created a product, which is faith, and they sell it the same way a criminal organization sells" its wares, said Marcelo Mendroni, a Sao Paulo state prosecutor. "They contract debts that they cannot and are not willing to pay. They promise philanthropic activities that are not fulfilled. They are contemptuous swindlers."

The church calls the allegations "slanders and lies." The Hernandeses, who entered pleas of not guilty in U.S. District Court in Miami last month, are being persecuted for a paperwork mistake, said the couple's lawyer, Luiz Flavio D'Urso, president of the Sao Paulo Bar Assn.

Prosecutors and experts cite a lack of oversight as evangelical churches rake in millions, often making their cases on Christian radio stations and television.

"Their discourse is: The more you believe, the more generous you are," said Ricardo Mariano, a sociologist specializing in the study of Brazil's evangelical movement.

Renascer said its number of places to worship in the country had surged to 1,200 from 400 in the last five years. Followers reportedly top 1 million. The church, which owns a TV network and more than a dozen radio stations, built a signature transmission tower in downtown Sao Paulo and organizes the annual "March for Jesus," drawing millions.

The Hernandes couple founded Renascer in 1986, initially preaching in the apartment of a fellow believer. Church lore recounts how the couple took a dozen addicts into their home and helped reform them.

Today, "Apostle" Estevam sports pricey watches, drives imported cars and dons Gucci loafers and Ermenegildo Zegna suits, according to Brazilian media reports. "Bishopess" Sonia is a client of Daslu, the posh shop for rich women here. They fly first class.

While other sects evangelized among the poor, Renascer went where more money was -- and crafted a sound and creed attractive to their targeted clientele. The church sponsored hugely successful "SOS of Life" concerts and imported the music of U.S. pop evangelical singers and Christian metal bands.

Bringing well-heeled youths into the church also has had a financial benefit -- attracting their inquiring elders, who may have more disposable income than the children.

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