Religion Today

Sao Paulo, Brazil - As Brazil's most infamous evangelical couple waits in electronic ankle bracelets for a cash-smuggling trial in U.S. federal court, Brazilians are taking a closer look at the husband and wife team whose case has been compared to that of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker in America.

Their adoring followers refer to them as Apostle Estevam and the Bishop Sonia. But Brazilian authorities say Estevam Hernandes Filho and Sonia Haddad Moraes Hernandes used the faithful's donations to buy mansions, horse farms and other luxury properties in Brazil and the United States.

Brazil is now seeking to extradite the couple from Florida, where they await trial Monday in Miami on federal charges that they smuggled $56,000 cash _ including $9,000 stashed in a Bible and $10,000 in their son's backpack _ on a flight from Sao Paulo.

The two pleaded not guilty and have been confined to a 4,634-square-foot house, worth $717,325 as of last year, in an upscale Boca Raton gated community on the edge of the Everglades. Ankle bracelets allow authorities to track their whereabouts.

The former Xerox marketing executive and his wife started the Reborn in Christ Church in the back room of a Sao Paulo pizza parlor, building over the course of two decades an evangelical empire that now boasts newspapers, TV and radio stations, a recording company and the Brazilian patent on the word "gospel."

The church now claims hundreds of thousands of followers around the world and some 1,200 temples in Brazil, the United States, Argentina and Italy. Its "March for Jesus" rally last year drew about 3 million faithful _ twice as many as in 2005.

The Hernandeses' followers say they see their arrest in Florida and the charges in Brazil as part of general persecution against evangelicals in Brazil, the world's largest Roman Catholic country, and proof there are demonic forces at work.

"I can't imagine anyone who can build a church like this one can be guilty of any evil. I feel the apostle and bishop are innocent and Jesus will prove them innocent," said Alessandra Vieira, a 22-year-old student, as she stood outside the church's cavernous Sao Paulo temple peddling bracelets and necklaces bearing the church's motto "God is Faithful."

But Sao Paulo state prosecutor Jose Reinaldo Guimaraes Carneiro, who is seeking the couple's extradition on charges of money laundering, larceny, embezzlement and fraud, says they built a personal fortune with the money they took from congregants' donations. The donations, according to local press reports, average than more than $770,000 a month.

Neither government nor church officials would comment on the value of the Hernandeses' assets or the amount of their personal wealth. The couple's U.S. lawyers declined comment on the case in Florida and their lawyer in Brazil did not return a call seeking comment.

Launching their church in 1986, the pair capitalized on the increasing popularity of evangelical Protestant churches, which have drawn millions through their dynamic services appealing to younger, working- and middle-class Brazilians.

"Reborn in Christ is an exponent of the same Pentecostal line created by American televangelists like Rex Humbard, Jimmy Swaggart and Jim and Tammy Bakker," said Edin Sued Abumanssur, a religious studies professor at Sao Paulo's Catholic University. "They all preach or preached the gospel of prosperity according to which the more one gives to God and the Church the better are his of her chances to prosper."

Jim Bakker was sent to federal prison in 1989 for bilking supporters of $158 million. He was released six years later.

But the prosperity message has growing appeal in this country of 187 million with one of the widest gaps between rich and poor in world.

According to the 2000 census, 74 percent of Brazilians classified themselves as Roman Catholics, down from 84 percent in 1990. At the same time, 15 percent classified themselves as evangelical Protestants, up from 9 percent in the 1990 census.

And in the seven years since the last census, Abumanssur says, there's been steady growth in the number of evangelicals _ a term used in Brazil to define several Christian but non-Catholic bodies, including Pentecostals, Baptists, Methodists and Lutherans.

Reborn in Christ is not the first Brazilian evangelical church to have been tainted by scandal.

In the early 1990s, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, Brazil's largest evangelical church, also was investigated for embezzlement and tax evasion, but nothing was ever proven and the church just grew stronger.

Today, the church headed by Bishop Edir Macedo owns a television network, a newspaper, several radio stations and is believed to have at least 5 million followers, among them several politicians belonging to right-of-center parties.

Abumanssur said because most of their followers view them as martyrs, the Hernandeses' legal woes are unlikely to damage the church's popularity. Most of the faithful do not care if their donations are used for charity or to buy a yacht for the founders of the church, he said.

"The average parishioner feels that he completes his part of his prosperity bargain with God when he seals his donation in the contribution envelope," he said. "What happens to his money afterward is of no concern."