Media mogul's church buys historic Rainbow rock venue

Mystery Brazilian faith: Veil of silence drawn over pounds 2.3m purchas e that enables little-known organisation to expand in Britain
JOHN McKIE

Once it rocked to The Beatles, Van Morrison and David Bowie. Punk fans rioted when The Clash appeared there in 1977. Four years earlier, 6,000 went on the rampage when they couldn't get tickets for The Osmonds.

Now, one of London's most famous rock venues, The Rainbow, will reverberate to little more than the sound of prayer and the chorus of confessional.

The Rainbow, once known as The Astoria, has been sold to a mysterious Brazilian religious organisation known as the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG).

Last October, the property company Prior Kirschel Properties bought the theatre - in Finsbury Park, north London - with the intention of returning it to its rock 'n' roll status.

Instead of selling to a music promoter, as PKP had hoped, it was bought by the Brazilian church for pounds 2.35m.

The organisation already has one church in Britain: in Brixton, south London. No one in this country has authority to talk on its behalf. Renato Cordoso, a pastor at the church, said: "There isn't anybody in this country who has the authorisation to give out information about the church."

Asked for the name of anyone abroad who could give information, Mr Cordoso said: "I am not able to tell you that."

The UCKG is known to be interested in broadening its British base. In June, it bid a reported pounds 4.5m for another rock venue, the Brixton Academy. Instead it was bought two weeks ago by the leisure company, Break For The Border, which owns restaurants, bars and the Shepherd's Bush Empire, which has recently hosted acts such as Blur and Elvis Costello. The UKCG then turned to The Rainbow, which it secured last week. The theatre, which closed in 1981, is currently boarded up and needs considerable refurbishment. Laurence Kirschel, a PKP director, said he felt no qualms about accepting the bid from the little-known church.

He said: "It would have been nice to have seen the building open as a rock venue, but there were costs to be maintained. We accepted the church's bid ahead of a couple of other bids because their references were better. They have bases in 25 different countries I know of and the people they worked with had nothing but good to say about them."

The church's only UK representative is Gavin Brent, who acted as its agent in the deals at Brixton and Finsbury Park. The UKCG has barred him from talking to the press.

He would only say: "I am involved with them but I have been instructed by them not to discuss matters with the press."

Pastor Renato Cordoso would only say: "We have our reasons for that." The main reason might be "Bishop" Edir Macedo. He is head of the Universal Church and one of Brazil's media magnates. He founded the UCKG in the slum areas of Rio de Janeiro, reportedly buying the Church's headquarters from undertakers. Now he owns two of Brazil's biggest-selling newspapers, a television network and 30 radio stations in the country.

The national newspaper Journal de Brazil has reported that the UCKG now reaches 46 countries. It has its strongest following in Brazil, and the paper reported its annual worldwide turnover as $8m Brazilian dollars (pounds 5.3m).

The Journal has cited South Africa, Uganda, Malawi, the US, Mexico and France and Italy as UCKG bases, with Britain the next stop. Its members are reported to pay 10 per cent of all their earnings to the Church - Brazilian newspaper reports have suggested that the Church regularly checks this payment.

Macedo was prosecuted in 1992 and jailed briefly. He left Brazil last year and reported sightings have since been made in Miami, Cape Town and Lisbon.

Ligia Lima, spokeswoman for the Brazilian government, confirmed: "He has been prosecuted by the federal tax system in 1992 and was jailed for two weeks, maximum. He's very famous and followed by a legion of admirers. He is believed to be in the US and the prosecutions are continuing. It's a very delicate matter."

Macedo must be hoping for an easier time in Britain. At a UCKG meeting in Brixton, a congregation of 20, with only three males, was exhorted in loud prayer by the pastor to purge themselves of problems by giving their lives to Jesus Christ. A collection was held but no one was obliged to give money.

In Finsbury Park, an Anglican priest, Nigel Hartley said: "I dislike the secrecy. It's wrong to offer people a deluded kind of hope. People are not going to get anything from a short-term fix."

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