Image: Evangelical protestants gather for march
Andre Penner  /  AP
Evangelical protestants gather for the annual March for Jesus in Sao Paulo on Monday.
updated 11/2/2009 4:30:45 PM ET 2009-11-02T21:30:45

More than 1.5 million evangelical Christians joined Brazil's annual "March for Jesus" on Monday, an event sponsored by a church whose leaders recently returned after being imprisoned in the U.S. for money smuggling.

Now in its 17th year, the march unites faithful from hundreds of evangelical churches and attracts dozens of Christian bands, preachers and local celebrities.

It is organized by the powerful Reborn in Christ Church, whose leaders said they expected 5 million people to gather around a central Sao Paulo plaza where the main stage was located.

Hundreds of thousands followed Estevam Hernandes Filho and his wife, Sonia Haddad Moraes Hernandes, along the 2.5-mile (4-kilometer) route of the march, and still more gathered at the plaza.

Police said more than 1.5 million people turned out by mid-afternoon.

The couple returned to Brazil in August after serving five months in prison, five months under house arrest in Florida and two months of probation for not declaring $56,000 in cash they were carrying on a flight from Sao Paulo to Miami. The money was hidden in a child's backpack and a Bible case, among other bags.

‘March to Topple Giants’
Filho said the theme of this year's gathering — "March to Topple Giants" — refers to evangelicals' battle against "discrimination, misunderstanding and mainly the stereotypes" in Brazil.

Brazil is home to more Roman Catholics than any other country but has seen a steady increase in the number of evangelicals in recent decades.

According to the 2000 census, 74 percent of Brazilians identify as Catholics, down from 84 percent in 1990. Fifteen percent classified themselves as evangelical Protestants, up from 9 percent in 1990.

Andrea Pazin, a 33-year-old human resources manger, bundled her two young children and husband into a car and drove 150 miles (240 kilometers) from interior Sao Paulo state for the march.

"It's one giant party for Jesus," she said, standing among a noisy throng of revelers.

While this year's march is a homecoming of sorts for Filho and Hernandes following their stint in prison, Pazin said the parade was a show of force for a higher power.

"We march every year, with or without them. They are important to us — they founded the church," she said. "But what is happening here is bigger than them. It's a celebration for Jesus."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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