Lessons in love – but who are the teachers? Thousands expected at Wembley event on romantic fulfilment sponsored by controversial church
The vast arena will packed to the rafters, filled with the happily married, the single, and those in troubled relationships – but all looking for a lesson in love. Yet behind the white teeth, perfect hair and hypnotic stage show of the "Love School" tutors lies a sinister secret.
Wembley Arena is today set to play host to 11,500 love pupils who will be schooled through the medium of big screens, bright lights and rousing music.
The international roadshow that is the Love School lands in London, promising a guide to romantic fulfilment. The photogenic teachers, Renato and Cristiane Cardoso, are a married couple of 22 years.
But buried in the small print for the event is the fact that it is "sponsored" by the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG), a group that believes in demonology, and has been likened to a cult.
Today's love-in has been advertised heavily on billboards, buses and by street teams with little mention of the church, best known in Britain for being investigated, and subsequently cleared, of involvement in the death of the Ivory Coast schoolgirl Victoria Climbié, although it was shown that the eight-year-old's guardians had taken her for exorcism to the UCKG.
The church, which originated in Brazil, has also faced accusations of laundering millions in worshippers' donations and using the proceeds for personal gain. Yet the thousands at Wembley will have little idea of the group behind their day of love.
Rick Ross, a consultant on cults and an expert witness in many cases in the US, said it is not uncommon for organisations with a "troubled history" to use "front organisations". He has studied the UCKG for many years, has attended their events and described them as "cult-like".
He claimed the Love School's function may be similar to the role of Scientology's substance abuse treatment programmes and anti-psychiatry initiatives.
"They are appendages, if you will, that become conduits to the same hub," he said. "So instead of talking about Scientology you hear about Arkanon, its anti-drug crusade, or about the Citizens' Centre for Human Rights and its fight against psychiatry, and you don't know that you're dealing with Scientology."
The organisers of the Love School say today's event has been created "in recognition of the fact that far too many marriages and relationships founder" in the UK. They add that this is "a genuine initiative" and did not "emphasise" the connection with the UCKS "as this is "a secular event". Bishop Celso Junior, who heads the UCKG in the UK, said: "The event is informed by practical common sense and a Christian perspective, but is not a religious event. If attendees are sufficiently interested in our approach to want to get to know us further, that's fine, and if they do not, that is also fine."
He added that any surplus cash from the event would be, "in the interests of transparency", ring-fenced for its youth group.
Meanwhile, back at Wembley, the church's youth group, VYG, will kick things off, while the closing words will be given by Bishop Junior. No involvement in the church is mentioned in promotional material.
At the centre of it all are the Cardosos. Presenters of a TV show in Brazil and co-authors of a book called Bulletproof Marriage, their on-stage relationship oozes aspirational bliss. Today's event is part of a world tour and is the practical incarnation of the lessons that have supposedly underpinned their union. These boil down to three tenets: love using your intelligence above your heart, be prepared to sacrifice for the relationship, and develop strategies to pre-empt problems in the relationship.
But Mr Ross's views on the Cardosos are clear. "If this couple are devout followers of the organisation, without any doubt in my mind, they're going to ultimately point people to that organisation for whatever problems they have."
The pair are indeed leading members of the church. Renato is a bishop. and Cristiane the daughter of the church's billionaire founder, Edir Macedo, owner of Brazil's second-largest TV network. He founded UCKG in 1979, with the idea of "tithing" at its core: God mandates you to give 10 per cent of your income to the church. It has resulted in accusations of charlatanism; and Mr Macedo, and three other members, are being tried in Brazil on charges of conspiracy, money laundering and undeclared international cash transfers.
Meanwhile, the church goes from strength to strength. And among London's unlucky-in-love, they may well find a few more members.
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