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Monday, March 19, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Pentacostal leaders caught in scandal

SÃO PAULO: Only a few months ago, Estevam and Sônia Hernandes were on television preaching a gospel of material success and living a life to match.

But that was before they were arrested in Miami in January and charged with illegally smuggling cash into the United States, including $9,000 concealed in a Bible.

All told, the U.S. authorities seized $56,467 that the couple and other family members had hidden on their bodies and in luggage, according to the U.S. indictment. The Brazilian authorities, who have charged the couple with money laundering and fraud, are seeking their extradition.

Because the Hernandeses are prominent and controversial in Brazil, their travails have focused new attention, not just on their own church, but also on the growing wealth and power of the religious movement they are part of, the fastest-growing in Brazil: Pentecostalism, many of whose fundamentalist Protestant denominations stress speaking in tongues or other visible manifestations of the Holy Spirit.

Hernandes, originally a marketing executive, and his wife, formerly a boutique manager, founded the Rebirth in Christ Church in the mid-1980s. They now preside over a religious and business structure that includes more than 1,000 churches, a television and radio network, a recording company, real estate in Brazil and the United States and, according to Brazilian news reports, a horse-breeding ranch and a trademark on the word "gospel" in Brazil.

On television and at their home church in São Paulo — which has been defaced with graffiti saying "You don't carry money in the Bible, thief!" and other insulting slogans — Hernandes, 52, and his wife, 48, preached a "theology of prosperity," often accompanied by her singing and sometimes by his saxophone playing.

Each year, the Rebirth in Christ Church sponsored a March for Jesus down the main avenue of São Paulo, the largest city in South America, mobilizing as many as three million people.

One of the couple's three children, Fernanda, is also a pastor and has asserted that the charges against her parents are part of a campaign of religious persecution against Pentecostals and the larger group they count themselves members of, evangelicals. She has complained that prosecutors in Brazil, the country with the largest Roman Catholic population in the world, are conducting "a new Inquisition."

"Brazil is still Catholic, but evangelicals are already 30 percent of the population," she said in a recent televised sermon. "That's why they want to destroy us and refer to us in a pejorative manner."

Coverage of the Hernandeses and the charges against them has been uniformly negative in the Brazilian news media, with many newspapers and magazines belittling their denomination as a "sect."

One newspaper regularly puts "bishop" in quotation marks when it refers to the couple and other church leaders.

"This is not just a religious issue, but one that involves media, political and commercial interests," said Luiz Flávio Borges D'Urso, a lawyer for the Hernandeses who is president of the bar association in São Paulo. "The truth is that television is very competitive and, since the church has a network of its own, the growth of their Gospel Network has generated antagonisms and confrontations with other media organizations whose interests are affected."

According to the nondenominational World Christian Database, Brazil has overtaken the United States as the country with the largest Pentecostal population. The survey, based on figures that churches provide, calculated that 24 million Brazilians belong to Pentecostal denominations and 138 million are Roman Catholics.

As the wealth and influence of Pentecostal and allied denominations in Brazil have grown, so have their involvement in politics. More than 10 percent of the members of Brazil's Congress belong to an evangelical caucus, and President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva chose his vice president from a party dominated by Pentecostal groups.

The Hernandeses' troubles became public late last year when prosecutors, who had been investigating complaints from former church members, froze several bank accounts. When the Hernandeses failed to appear at a hearing — because of medical problems, their lawyer says — an order to detain them was granted.

In early January, after a judge set aside the detention decree, they left for the United States.

They have several churches in southern Florida and a home in Boca Raton, but they were stopped at customs because the Brazilian authorities had issued an alert in their names for "suspicion of money laundering and fraud related to Brazilian organized crime," according to an affidavit filed by an agent of the U.S. Bulk Currency Smuggling Task Force.

"It was a misunderstanding, an inadvertently erroneous declaration," said D'Urso. "They go to the United States every January to preach and evangelize and weren't planning to stay. They want to come back, to show that the accusations here have no foundation."

While they await trial in the United States, the Hernandeses, free on bail, continue to preach to their followers, who include the soccer star Kaká, through Webcam and satellite broadcasts.

They practice long-distance faith healing, urge their supporters to keep tithing and proclaim their innocence.

The Hernandeses' trial on the cash- smuggling charges is scheduled for early May, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney in Miami said. D'Urso said negotiations for a plea bargain were "quite advanced," but the lawyers representing the couple in the United States declined requests for an interview.

In the meantime, the Hernandeses' problems at home continue to mount.

The Brazilian government is seeking their extradition and is moving to strip their church of some media properties.

In addition, two of their children and a son-in-law are being investigated on suspicion that a state legislator, who is also a Rebirth in Christ minister, gave them no-show jobs.

Hernandes has condemned all of the accusations as "the handiwork of the devil."