Let’s say it’s 3am and for some reason you can’t sleep. You surf through channels in boredom, dealing with insufferable infomercials and mind-numbing reality shows considered “too hot for daytime television.” However, when you reach the lower channels, something catches your attention.
There’s this Brazilian preacher on a show called ‘Pare de sufrir‘ (Stop suffering). He speaks to you in Spanish, but his tongue carries a heavy Portuguese accent. He wears a pristine white suit and his perfectly combed hair is thick with gel. Gold jewellery shines from his neck and fingers.
He is, in a way, charming.
And he’s not selling anything. He’s just talking about love and loving others. “Is your life burdened with problems? Are you looking for a job? Has your significant other left you?” he asks. And then: “Jesus Christ is the answer,” and he invites you to visit his church where you can purify your soul at no expense.
However, after watching his message for a few minutes, you come to realise something is slightly odd. He presents you with a “Possessions Decalogue,” pointing out ten signs that suggest you may be possessed by the devil (dramatisations included). Symptoms may include anxiety, insomnia or being on edge, and considering it is 3am and you’re mindlessly flipping through tv channels, chances are you’ll soon believe Satan is residing comfortably within you.
Sound silly? Truth is, it would just be another late-night TV anecdote if it weren’t for the millions of people around the world being herded by the Iglesia Universal del Reino de Dios (Universal Church of the Kingdom of God), a 33-year-old movement that started in Brazil and has spread the word of “the holy ghost” all over the world throughout the Americas, Africa, Asia and Europe with an unstoppable force.
So why is it so appealing? Founded in 1977 by Edir Macedo Bezerra, the church, despite technically being Christian, introduced its followers to a series of religious charms that were said to carry the power of God within them. And so, for a small fee, believers could buy a bottle of holy water from the river Jordan, a bag of salt blessed by the Holy Ghost, or a container of Israeli oil. They also performed live exorcisms and miracle healings in front of the audience, which made it a lot more exciting than going to mass.
However, persistent claims of money laundering, fraud and shady business dealings suggest there might be a darker side to the church. Rumours surrounding the Iglesia Universal and its mafia-like behavior are abound. Ever since a Telenoche Investiga segment in 2001 showed that the alleged “Israeli oil” the church was selling was nothing more than common, supermarket oil, the place has attracted scores of investigative journalists hoping to uncover some dirt and expose them as frauds.
The church has been under investigation by Brazilian authorities over accusations of money laundering, but so far no major indictment has been made. It might help that it carries a great deal of political clout in Brazil: the country’s current Vice-President Jose Alencar is a member of the Iglesia Universal, and he resigned from his party in order to join the Partido Municipalista Renovador, which was created by the church.
Controversy has followed the church as it spread quickly around the world. In July this year, Regina DaSilva, the New York treasurer for Iglesia Universal was arrested for fraud. Here in Argentina, where Iglesia Universal has around half a million followers, author Alfredo Silleta claims in his book ‘Shopping Espiritual‘ that the institution covertly purchased two radio stations. According to the Argentina law, it is illegal for foreign organisations to privately acquire a license for radio or television.
The business of hope
Despite the allegations, Iglesia Universal continues to raise large sums of money from its devotees. In Brazil alone, the church is believed to be making well over US$700 million from donations each year coming from the 4,500 temples scattered across 1,500 Brazilian towns and cities.
Critics say the church exploits the marginalised – such as unemployed or immigrants – using ‘prosperity theology’. Under this system of beliefs, the more you give the church, the more you receive from God.
To experience firsthand how this works, the Indy decided to visit the Sunday service in the impressive Templo de la Fe (Temple of Faith) in Almagro, Buenos Aires. It was a delicate undercover mission, as after receiving so much unwanted media attention, the church views newcomers with deep suspicion. [Read Eric’s account first hand here]
Most of the 800 or so parishioners at the service appeared to be from low-income groups and experiencing a great deal of suffering in their lives. In short, they looked desperate. And they were more than willing to listen to the preacher who told them that the only solution is to pray, to offer up money to Jesus, and to bring others to the church. If their prayers are not answered, they are told, it means they’re not giving enough. A vicious circle soon develops, and just like Iglesia Universal’s Sunday service, it’s very easy to enter but very hard to leave. (You can read the full account of my bizarre experience – including a live exorcism and being told that my parents were possessed by the devil – here).
According to Alfredo Silleta, this ‘model’ helps explain how the church grew to become a “political-economical-religious empire”. In Brazil, as well as boasting members in the highest echelons of government, the church owns several tv and radio stations, daily and weekly newspapers, and a bank.
As the Vatican continues its conservative struggle to keep the Catholic Church from modernising, these alternative churches seem more appealing and accessible to the masses. And as the Iglesia Universal increasingly departs from the idea of being a religious institution to become a mass-production corporation, in time we may come to learn that faith too, comes with a price tag.
Lead image: IURD – Africa by Roberto Filipe