On March 21st, 2001, Lucas Terra, a 14-year-old boy in Salvador, Brazil, called his parents to say that he would be home late so he could attend a special prayer session with Silvio Galiza, pastor at “A Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus” or the “The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God,” known as IURD for its Portuguese acronym.
Two days later Luca’s charred body was found bound and gagged inside a wooden box that had been left in an abandoned lot. Forensic experts concluded that Lucas had been burned alive to hide the fact that he had been raped, which was still evident despite the damage done to the remains. Inside the box and protected beneath the body, investigators found fragments of church pamphlets and pages of the bible that were used to fuel the fire. Three witnesses, all members of the same church, saw Galiza alone with Lucas hours before the crime occurred.
The story of Lucas Terra is just one of many scandals that have rocked “The Universal Church” as it continues to expand in Brazil and across the globe. Founded in 1976 as a small church in the north of Rio de Janeiro by a group of pastors including its charismatic leader, Bishop Edir Macedo, IURD now operates over 3,500 temples in over 80 countries. In the United States most IURD followers are Latinos and Bishop Macedo preaches for a half-hour everyday on the Spanish language outlet Telemundo. Like McDonalds, you can find an IURD church nearby in any part of the world. There are 12 branches in NYC—four in Brooklyn alone.
During the two and a half years that Lucas Terra’s case remained caught up in state bureaucracy, his father, Jose Carlos Terra, conducted a public campaign accusing IURD of protecting a “killer priest” and the government of incompetent foot dragging in its prosecution. Mr. Terra began his crusade with a silent vigil outside the public ministry in Salvador, before eventually taking his case to Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia, and even to Geneva, Switzerland, where he demanded action from the United Nation’s Commission for Human Rights. The Brazilian media, especially outlets from Rio, home of the IURD, and Salvador, followed his every step.
In 2003, Galiza, now an ex-pastor, returned to Salvador and was shortly there after arrested by local police. As the trial approached, IURD officials were accused of intimidating witnesses. In the words of the murdered boy’s girlfriend, “I was threatened even though I have attended the church for 20 years, they said I should shut up. It’s like a military regime.” Following a tense and public trial, one of the longest in the state’s history, Galiza was found guilty and sentenced to 23 years in prison.
The Lucas Terra scandal did nothing to decrease IURD’s influence in Brazil. Part of a rapidly growing conservative brand of evangelical churches called “Neo-Pentecostals,” IURD has distinguished itself as the most radical, powerful, and controversial Protestant church in the country. Its power extends beyond its temple—IURD’s additional assets in Brazil include a national network television channel, a newspaper, two print magazines and one online magazine, a record company, a tourism business, and a slew of radio stations. Federal investigators and media exposés have accused IURD of corruption, tax evasion, money laundering, and fraud. Social critics have lambasted the IURD for spreading intolerance through its vilification of Catholic saints, followers of Afro-Brazilian religions, and gays and lesbians.
The Universal Church has grown in Brazil by importing time-tested American evangelical methods. The first Brazilian church to use mass media in a Televangelist style, the UC was also the first to build mega-churches that seat thousands every Sunday. The Church was able to employ such expensive strategies because of the tremendous financial success it achieved from its “Prosperity theology,” a doctrine that promises church members health, good fortune, and romantic success if they have faith and give regular donations and to church coffers. Pastors organize drives to collect “sacrificial offers,” promising donors that their wishes, written in letters that accompany the cash in the envelopes, will be blessed and taken to holy sites like Mount Sinai. The moment of donation is the climactic point of the service. As in Rev. Billy Graham’s patented “call to the alter,” IURD parishioners, rather than come forward to “open their hearts to Jesus,” open their pocket books instead. This message of payment or “sacrifice” in exchange for divinely delivered economic security has deep resonance with Brazil’s poor, who make up the majority of IURD’s followers.
“Who brought your envelopes? Everyone who brought your envelopes, hold your hands in the air!” As hands rise the priest continues, “More then 200! If you can give a true offering of sacrifice, if you want your dreams to be taken up to Mount Sinai in Israeli, come to the altar!” A trickle of people enter the aisles with envelopes in hand and heads held high, the envy of their peers. Once they return, the preacher lowers his offer, “Now five. Think of your deepest wishes—that new car you’ve always wanted, a better home for your family, a true love—think of those wishes and put your sacrifice in the envelop, and come to the altar!”
Prosperity theology is seen by some critics as a modern response to Liberation Theology, the left-wing Catholic philosophy that spread throughout Latin America during the Cold War before its main proponent, Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff, was called before an inquisition and ordered silent by then—Cardinal Ratzinger—today’s Pope Benedict XVI. In both approaches, the poor were urged to use religion to better their lives in “the here and now” as opposed to simply waiting for relief in heaven. But while liberation theology offered political action as a way to improve conditions, “prosperity theology” argues that the poor can advance through faith and church donations alone.
The Universal Church’s rise to power in the ‘80s and ‘90s often put it in direct conflict with Brazil’s Catholic establishment and media elite. In 1995, a controversial incident on an IURD television show provoked what came to be known as the Brazilian “holy war.” In the show, a particularly strident IURD pastor, Sergio Von Helder, held up a plastic Virgin Mary doll and derided it as a false idol before placing in on the ground and delivering a series of punches and kicks, landing 15 decisive blows in total. The event may have slipped under the radar if Brazil’s largest television network, Globo, hadn’t rebroadcast the doll beating in its evening news show. A wave of outrage swept through this still predominantly Catholic country, culminating in street protests in major cities like São Paulo and the stoning of an IURD church in Rio de Janeiro.
Initially Bishop Macedo and Von Helder were defiant, but their tune changed when it became clear that public opinion was against IURD. Macedo admonished Von Helder as a “child” and sent him into church exile by reassigning him to the United States. He ended up in the IURD’s Brooklyn headquarters, where for a time he helped coordinate the church’s financial dealings in the United States. Von Helder didn’t have any trouble keeping in touch with his boss Bishop Macedo, who runs the show from Purchase.
While the Church has been quick to defend its own, it has shown no reluctance to attack politicians and social groups that do not defend its principles. Its targets of choice are homosexual men and follower of Afro-Brazilian religions.
None of the major Christian churches in Brazil endorse gay rights or Afro-Brazilian religions, but none has been as consistent, vehement, or as vicious in their attacks as the Igreja Universal. IURD understands homosexuals and Candomblé to be expressions of the devil’s influence in the world. The danger, though, lays not so much in what is directly said but what is inferred. In the sermons I heard, and in others repeated ad nausea on the church’s TV network, pastors portray life as a constant struggle against the forces of evil. In their understanding, Satan actively tries to destroy the lives of the faithful by bringing them family problems, disease, economic insecurity, and bad luck. Churchgoers can overcome Satan by having faith, giving money to IURD, and doing all they can to confront “evil” as they see it. When the pastors need a concrete representation of the devil, they invoke homosexuals or African religions. So in effect, these two minority groups are in an indirect way blamed for bringing misery and poverty to the earth.
While the fact that Pentecostals vilify gays is hardly surprising, Dr. Luiz Mott, anthropologist at the Federal University of Bahia and founder of Brazil’s oldest gay rights association, Grupo Gay da Bahia (GGB), has reason to be concerned about the recent trend. According to statistics compiled by the GGB, between 100-150 gay men are murdered each year in the country, making Brazil, as the organization says, “the world champion of gay killings.”
The gay movement in Brazil is increasingly mobilized to defend its rights. On May 30th between 1.8 and 2.4 million people packed São Paulo for a march under the slogan “Civil Unions Now!” It was the largest Gay-LBT march ever recorded in the world. However, only three days before, on May 28, an evangelical march brought 2 million “believers” to São Paulo. Needless to say, it would not have been pretty had they scheduled on the same day.
But IURD continues to expand, seemingly inoculated against the barrage of investigations, media reports, and books that assail its reputation. It marches on, growing wherever poverty, ignorance, and desperation have taken root. Stay tuned: The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God will be coming soon to street corner near you.
Jared Goyette is a writer from Philadelphia.