The Bishop, the Virgin and the cocaine cartel

Prosecutors will look into alleged extortion, tax fraud and links to drug barons
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IN ONLY 18 years of existence, Brazil's Universal Church of the Kingdom of God has thrived, to say the least. More than 3.5m Brazilians have been converted by the faith-healing church's evangelists, as well as a similar number in 30 other countries. More than 2,000 temples have mushroomed in Brazil and worldwide, including Britain. More than $2m (pounds 1.5m) in offerings rolls in daily, putting it among Brazil's top 30 private companies.

Night after night in packed services, demons are exorcised from believers, the lame cast off their crutches, and, if the church's pastors are to be believed, the blind miraculously regain their sight just in time to stuff money into the plate.

In the world's most populated Catholic country, however, putting the boot into the Virgin Mary on live television was probably a bad idea.

A Universal Church pastor who kicked an icon of the Virgin in October on the church's own TV station and called the Virgin a "horribly ugly doll" may have initiated a serious reversal of fortunes for the fast-growing sect.

Last week, partly spurred by a public outcry over the Virgin-kicking, Brazil's Attorney- General ordered an investigation into the church and its self- proclaimed "Bishop", Edir Macedo, for alleged tax fraud, extortion, and links with Colombia's cocaine barons.

The Attorney-General, Geraldo Brindeiro, said public prosecutors would investigate a claim by Mr Macedo's former deputy, Carlos Magno, that Colombia's Cali cocaine cartel had once handed over $1m to Universal Church pastors to help the church buy Brazil's third largest television network, Record TV.

Mr Brindeiro charged that a videotape made by Mr Magno while he was still in the church - showing Mr Macedo and other pastors mocking their congregations as suckers and making obscene gestures - was "clear evidence of extortion of the church's followers."

The video, repeatedly broadcast by the rival Globo television network over the Christmas holidays, showed Mr Macedo instructing collection-gatherers - who are on a percentage bonus scheme - how to get more cash out of their followers. He says: "Do you get the idea? Tell them, if they want to be part of the work of God, now's their chance. Otherwise, they'll go to hell. Either they contribute or they go down."

The tape also showed Mr Macedo dancing on Rio's Copacabana beach. Some of his pastors spoke about taking their clothes off at a party in a Jerusalem hotel. Mr Macedo was seen pulling grotesque faces as he counted donations after opening a temple in New York.

Mr Macedo, who has lived mostly in New York since he was briefly jailed in Brazil in 1992 on charges of fraud and illicit enrichment, did not deny that the video was genuine. But he said it was made 10 years ago when he and his pastors were "not as experienced as today" and that he had done nothing illegal.

"If we were thieves, we would not have bought a TV station, radio stations, nothing," he said. "We would have pocketed the cash and travelled around the world."

The 50-year-old former state lottery official promised a "holy war" to defend the church he set up in 1977 after abandoning Catholicism and flirting with black magic and pentecostalism.

He accused the Globo network, Brazil's biggest and which traditionally represents the Roman Catholic establishment, of trying to destroy him for business and political reasons.

Just as the Catholic establishment has been jolted by the rapid rise of the Universal Church, the Globo network may well be concerned by Mr Macedo's rise as a media and business tycoon. With an estimated $800m annual income from his followers, Mr Macedo has bought the Network TV channel, 35 radio stations, a bank, four newspapers and a travel agency specialising in trips to the Holy Land.

In a recent Globo television soap opera titled Decadence, a sleazy, blackmailing evangelist who lives in luxury off the back of his followers bore an uncanny physical resemblance to Mr Macedo. Mr Macedo threatened to sue Globo, but the network insisted the resemblance was coincidental.