A Brazilian court has accepted a case against the leaders of the UniversalChurch of the Kingdom of God (IURD, in the Portuguese acronym), whopublic prosecutors in the state of São Paulo accuse of misusing devotees’donations for illegal profiteering and money laundering.IURD leaderscould also be probed for alleged ties with Colombian drug gangs. TheIURD is Brazil’s largest evangelical group, with some 4,500 churches in thecountry. It has a large political representation, including several congressionaldeputies, which could give the case a political dimension.
The IURD was founded 32 years ago by Bishop Edir Macedo, who nowcarries dual Brazilian-US citizenship. The IURD is open to everyone andoffers comfort and a way out of vice, crime and addiction to many of itsdevotees throughout the world. Its services, however, come at a cost:Macedo founded the IURD based on a very particular “prosperity theology,”which preaches that the highest form of faith expression is the donation ofmoney, allowing it to grow into a powerful money-making machine nowpresent in more than 170 countries.
This in itself is not a crime in Brazil, where there are no legal impediments tocollecting religious donations. But, according to public prosecutors, based ona two-year investigation conducted by the special unit for the repression oforganised crime in the state of São Paulo (Gaeco), Macedo and 10 other IURDleaders have used devotees’ donations to accumulate private wealth - in thecase of Macedo and his wife, luxurious real estate in Brazil and the US,private jets and, significantly, TV Record, which is among Brazil’s fourlargest national broadcasters. Together, IURD leaders own 23 regional TVstations, 42 radio stations, as well as several other companies and real estatein Brazil alone
The use of religious donations for private profiteering is illegal in Brazil, notleast because they are exempt from taxation. The IURD collects aroundR$1.4bn (US$764m) annually in donations in Brazil and the Gaeco suspectsthat as much as R$4bn in donations has been illegally moved by IURDleaders between 2003 and 2008 though a web of ghost companies. Accordingto Gaeco, IURD leaders have created a money-laundering operation,sending cash donations to overseas tax havens and then repatriating fundsto buy property and businesses illegally.
This is not the first time the IURD has come under scrutiny by the Brazilianauthorities: the new case could reopen a probe into alleged links withColombian drug gangs, which first surfaced in 1991. Public prosecutors saythey will summon a former IURD pastor, Carlos Magno de Miranda, as awitness in the new case - almost two decades after he denounced that hewent to Colombia, together with two other IURD pastors, to collectUS$450,000 meant to be used to buy TV Record. Gaeco officers crossexamined federal police registers and found that IURD pastors had indeedflown to Medellín via Manaus on private jets in December 1989, whenMiranda said the transaction took place.
The recent complaints have sparked a media war between TV Record andTV Globo, Brazil’s most-powerful media conglomerate, and other mainstreamBrazilian media. It is also acquiring a political dimension, withMacedo implying through entries on his personal blog that the recent case isbacked by the likely opposition presidential candidate, the governor of SãoPaulo, José Serra. In the blog he allows commentators to say that the mainstreammedia “is walking hand-in-hand with Serra” and that “these mediabarons fear another presidential mandate for the Partido dos Trabalhadores.”