Nine die as Brazilian church roof collapses

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The Independent US

Rescue workers sifted through the wreckage today of a sprawling evangelical church in Brazil's largest city where the roof collapsed during a religious service, killing at least nine people and injuring more than 100.

The roof of the popular Reborn in Christ Church near downtown Sao Paulo gave way during the evening service on Sunday, trapping worshipers beneath a mountain of rubble and wooden beams.

One body was found under the rubble and another person died in the hospital on Monday, raising the death toll to nine, the youngest of whom was a 15-year-old girl, but officials said it was unlikely to climb further.

At least five people remained in critical condition in hospitals and eight neighboring buildings were evacuated after authorities feared the church collapse weakened their structures.

It was not immediately clear what caused the church, an old movie theater with the capacity to hold 1,800 people, to collapse. The church was temporarily shut down by authorities in 1999 because of a termite problem in the rafters but church leaders said the building was entirely up to code.

"It's premature to start laying blame," Ronaldo Marzagao, Sao Paulo's public security secretary, told reporters.

The Reborn in Christ Church is among the biggest of hugely popular evangelical denominations that have been chipping away at the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church in Brazil.

Brazilian soccer star Kaka, who currently plays for AC Milan in Italy, is a Reborn in Christ follower and was married in the same building in 2005. When Kaka was named World Player of the Year in 2007, he donated the trophy to the church.

The Reborn in Christ Church, which was created in 1986, has been the subject of controversy since its founders, Estevam and Sonia Hernandes, were arrested in Miami in 2007 for failing to declare more than $56,000 in cash when they entered the United States.

The couple, who are also wanted in Brazil on money laundering charges, said they were "saddened and shocked" by the incident.

"What happened was an unforeseen tragedy. We don't know the motive. But there must be a reason for so much suffering," they said in a statement from the United States.