U.S. detains Brazil mega-church founders over cash
by Casey Woods ("Miami Herald," January 19, 2007)
Brazilian mega-church leaders Sonia Moraes Hernandes and Estevam Hernandes-Filho spent the last two decades building one of Brazil's largest evangelical empires.
They're now spending their time at a federal detention center in Miami.
The couple was arrested at Miami International Airport last week on charges of currency smuggling and lying to customs officers after U.S. Immigration and Customs agents found they were carrying thousands of dollars more than the $10,000 they declared, investigators allege.
Agents found the first extra bundle of cash, $9,000, tucked into the cover of Sonia's Bible. They found other bundles of money squirreled away in various places, including inside a CD case, in a folded jacket packed in a suitcase and in the backpack of their young son, Gabriel, according to the arrest affidavit.
The grand total: $56,000.
The couple -- already under investigation by a Brazilian organized crime unit for charges including tax evasion and money laundering -- preside over an empire of about 1,200 churches in Brazil, as well as television and radio stations. Their Reborn in Christ Church is considered the second largest neopentecostal church in the country.
The couple's arrest has sent shock waves through the evangelical world in Brazil, and tremors through the Brazilian religious community in Florida -- where the couple has at least two churches, one each in Deerfield Beach and Orlando.
One of the pastors at the Deerfield Reborn in Christ Church said the arrests of the husband and wife -- known as the Apostle Estevam and the Bishop Sonia to their faithful -- were part of a ``religious persecution.''
''They disagree with the accusations, and they have a clear conscience because they know they are doing the work of God,'' said Pastor Angelita Vale. ``The congregation here loves the apostle and the bishop because they know they are serious people . . . and that none of this is true. What is happening is terrible and cruel.''
The storefront church, at a strip mall on busy West Hillsboro Boulevard, has about 100 members, Vale said.
The possible fallout from the couple's arrest worries other local Brazilian church leaders.
''This is having a big impact here, because everyone . . . watches the news about them, and people who don't go to church become scared to go,'' said Pastor Silair Almeida of the Pompano-Beach based First Brazilian Baptist Church of South Florida, the largest Brazilian congregation in the state. ``A lot of ministers who are doing serious work in Florida will be affected by this.''
After the couple's arrest, Sonia Hernandes told agents that their adult son Felipe, who helps manage the church's finances, gave her an ''unknown'' amount of money at the airport in Brazil, and that she put it in her purse without counting it, according to the arrest affidavit. Estevam said he believed he had only a ''couple of dollars on his person,'' and that he had no knowledge of the amount of money his wife was carrying, the criminal complaint states.
After each paying $2,500 of a $50,000 individual bond, the couple was released from a Miami jail Tuesday. They were immediately taken into custody by immigration authorities.
Customs and Border Protection special agent Zachary Mann said the pending charges against the couple may make them inadmissible for U.S. entry. Estevam is being held at Krome Detention Center, and Sonia is being held at the West Palm Beach County Jail, where ICE leases space for immigration detainees.
They will go before an immigration judge to determine whether they should remain in detention or be released while facing the U.S. charges.
A Brazilian court issued arrest warrants for the couple last week, after investigators there argued that the charges against them in Miami were proof that that they were laundering money and evading taxes, and that the cash they brought to the United States might eventually be used to flee Brazilian justice.
Their lawyer in Brazil, Luiz Flavio D'Urso, emphatically denied those allegations in an interview posted on the church's website, igospel.com.br.
''There is nothing more absurd!'' D'Urso said. ``The couple has a green card, and so have authorization to live there and carry out that [church] work. Any presumption that that money was for . . . a supposed escape if they are convicted is a deceptive theory.''
Neither the couple's Miami attorney nor the press representative in Brazil returned calls seeking comment. A guard at the lushly landscaped gated community in Boca Raton where they own a house could not reach their home on Tuesday, saying the couple had changed their telephone number without notifying the guard station.
Reborn in Christ is emblematic of the meteoric rise of evangelical churches over the last two decades in Brazil, the world's largest Roman Catholic country. The evangelical population doubled in the 1990s to about 15 percent of the population, or 26.2 million people, according to the 2000 Brazilian census.
Like many of the evangelical churches, Reborn in Christ has been built around the charisma of its founders, the Hernandeses. The church in Brazil has been particularly popular, drawing celebrity adherents such as the soccer star Kaka, and organizing an annual ''March for Jesus'' that last year drew three million people to Sao Paulo's streets.
Along the way, the Hernandes family has also amassed a fortune in the church's name that includes a music label, broadcast companies and the Boca house, which they bought for $465,000 in 2000 and is now appraised at about $720,000.
Theirs isn't the only Brazilian evangelical church to be embroiled in a scandal. Congressman Joao Batista Ramos da Silva, a bishop of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, was stopped in Brazil in 2005 with six others on a private plane with suitcases full of cash. Ramos da Silva told police it was money collected during religious services.
The structure of the Reborn church and others like it can contribute to mismanagement, said Silair, the Pompano Beach church pastor, because there is no oversight on how the money is spent.
''In Brazil, there are many large churches that are built on the personality of the leader, and when those churches grow . . . they have one person who is in control of spending the money,'' Silair said. ``Most of the churches in the U.S. have a board of trustees who take care of the money . . . and the American way is better.''
But other local pastors said the structure isn't the problem.
''There are always going to be good pastors, who work honestly, and bad pastors, who aren't honest,'' said Moises Monteiro, the president of the Brazilian community's Florida Association of Evangelical Pastors and the pastor of the New Life Church in Pompano Beach.
``That doesn't happen just with evangelicals, but when there are bad evangelical pastors, there's more attention because we are always preaching about behaving correctly.''