The founder of one of Brazil's biggest evangelical churches siphoned off billions of dollars in donations from his mostly poor followers to buy jewelry, TV stations and other businesses for himself, authorities charged Tuesday.
A Brazilian judge accepted charges from prosecutors alleging that Bishop Edir Macedo and nine other people linked to the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God committed fraud against the church itself and against its numerous followers.
Sao Paulo state's prosecutors office alleged in a statement that Macedo and the others took more than $2 billion in donations from 2003 to 2008 alone, but charged that the alleged scheme went back 10 years.
Church lawyer Arthur Lavigne told the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo that the accused denied any wrongdoing. Church officials did not respond to attempts to reach them by phone and e-mail.
Prosecutors said the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God receives nearly $800 million in donations every year from faithful in 4,500 temples across Brazil. The church claims to have nearly 8 million followers in Brazil and many more around the world.
Prosecutors said the church tells its members it needs donations — cash, checks, cars and other goods — to finance new temples and to pay for religious programs on radio and TV.
The church allegedly used fake companies to launder the money, moving the assets abroad and then returning them in the form of loans used by Macedo and his accomplices to buy businesses, prosecutors said.
"There is proof that the money from the donations was used to attend to the personal interests of those being accused" and that they took advantage that the donations were not taxed to make investments in personal business, the prosecutors' statement said.
Owns media outlets
Macedo, who founded the church in 1977, owns a large television network, three newspapers and several radio stations. He also owns a tourism agency and an air taxi company.
In the early 1990s, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God was investigated for embezzlement and tax evasion, but nothing was ever proven and the church grew stronger.
Brazil is the world's largest Roman Catholic country, but recently the number of evangelicals has grown significantly among its population of about 190 million people.