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Sunday, June 10, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Pastoral couple claim persecution motivated criminal charges

MIAMI - A couple who leads one of Brazil's biggest evangelical churches pleaded guilty on Friday to smuggling tens of thousands of dollars into the U.S. in luggage, a backpack and a Bible.

Estevam Hernandes Filho, 53, and Sonia Haddad Moraes Hernandes, 48, are also charged in Brazil with stealing millions of dollars from parishioners for luxuries such as mansions and horse farms. They will likely be deported home after their U.S. case is resolved.

The couple — known as Apostle Estevam and Bishop Sonia to their thousands of Christian faithful — admitted evading U.S. currency requirements and conspiracy.

"Yes, guilty," Hernandes and his wife each said in Portuguese to U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno, according to a court translator.

Hernandes then tightly hugged his wife, who fought back tears. Both declined comment, as did their lawyers. Their church said in a statement issued Friday that the couple did not expect to go to prison and awaited their sentencing "with enduring calm and confidence in their acts."

The couple founded Brazil's Reborn in Christ Church in 1986, and it now claims hundreds of thousands of followers and about 1,200 temples in the country with the world's largest Roman Catholic population. The church has temples in Orlando, Deerfield Beach and Boston, and their empire also includes newspapers, TV and radio stations, a recording company and a Brazilian patent on the English word "gospel."

Brazilian authorities say the couple stole parishioners' donations for their own use, including mansions and horse farms in Brazil and the United States. Brazil is seeking the couple's extradition from the United States on charges of fraud, larceny, tax evasion and money laundering.

Church officials in Brazil have said the charges result from religious persecution, and followers have continued to express support.

The U.S. charges were brought after the couple arrived at Miami International Airport in January on a flight from Sao Paulo, Brazil, with $56,467 cash stashed in luggage, her purse, a son's backpack and a Bible.

Prosecutors say they failed to declare on a customs form that they were carrying more than $10,000.

Trial had been scheduled to start next week.

Under a plea agreement, the couple will forfeit the cash.

The charges carry a maximum of 10 years in prison, though the couple would probably get far less under sentencing guidelines. The judge could also impose fines of up to $500,000 each.

Sentencing was set for Aug. 17. Until then, the couple will remain under house arrest at a home they own in a gated neighborhood in Boca Raton, the judge said.