“If you were to meet God himself in his own house, what would you wear?” This question was asked by the bishop Renato Cardoso, from the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God from Brazil, in an official video released by the church and intended to instruct the guests and the faithful who tomorrow will be attending the inauguration of Solomon’s Temple, a 10,000-seat replica of the Bible’s most famous temple, built in the eleventh century BC in Jerusalem. The new temple occupies an area of over one million square feet in Sao Paulo and will serve as Universal’s new headquarters.
According to bishop Cardoso, the right way to meet God is by dressing for any formal meeting with someone really important, meaning no hats or sunglasses, sleeveless shirts or shorts and by no means sandals or clothing with commercial or political messages. Cardoso is the son-in-law of billionaire bishop Edir Macedo, the founder and leader of the Universal Church. It’s been a long road for Macedo since the days he founded the church in 1977, in a small space in a Rio de Janeiro suburb previously occupied by a funeral home. The church now counts about 1.8 million followers in Brazil.
The 69-year-old Macedo will be the star of Thursday’s inauguration, which will be attended by President Dilma Rousseff and her predecessor, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, among many other influential political figures from Sao Paulo and throughout Brazil. It was his idea to build a replica of Solomon’s Temple as a way to showcase his church’s incredible presence in Brazil and its reshaping of the country’s religious scene over the last three decades.
Although Brazil remains as the world’s largest Catholic country, with about 60% of its population of nearly 200 million defining themselves as followers of the Vatican-based church, the latest census figures point to a strong decline among the ranks of Roman Catholics, who were the majority, or 92%, in 1970. At the same time, the number of Protestant evangelicals soared from 15.4% of Brazilians just a decade ago to about 22% today, or 42.3 million people. Recent studies have shown that the downward trend for Catholicism will continue and that by 2030 Catholics will represent less than 50% of Brazilian churchgoers.
This trend has turned religion into a profitable industry in Brazil and made a few religious leaders multimillionaires. New churches and denominations are emerging regularly and preachers like Macedo have achieved celebrity status. Even the Catholic Church has adapted somewhat. Catholic neo-charismatic movements throughout Brazil are now following the footsteps of neo-Pentecostals in order to make mass less formal and livelier.
For Macedo, building a replica of Solomon’s Temple was a way of marking his space in Brazil’s religious world. He did it with great style: The temple cost an estimated $300 million in church funds donated from members, and once its inaugurated it will be Brazil’s largest religious space, dethroning the Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida located in Aparecida, in the state of Sao Paulo, which was commissioned by the Catholic Church and consecrated by Pope John Paul II in 1980.
Macedo’s temple will also be twice as tall as the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, another iconic Catholic site in Brazil. The finishing details of the temple include exclusive chairs brought from Spain to accommodate an audience of 10,000 people, Italian marble and olive trees imported from Israel. It will have a conveyor belt designed to carry the tithe of the faithful from the altar right into a safe room, a huge screen and 10,000 LED bulbs installed in the ceiling of the main hall, which will form different patterns, like stars. The walls are adorned with huge menorahs, including a large one near the entrance. The flags of Brazil and the Universal Church will fly alongside those of Israel and the United States, and those of several other countries.
The mega temple altar is a show unto itself. It is shaped like the Ark of the Covenant, described in the Book of Exodus as the chest where David placed the Tablets of Stone on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed and that were kept in the first Solomon Temple. Macedo ordered the structure to be entirely covered with gold leaf. In the background, there is a baptistry with a pool in which the converted can get dressed in white and then go to Communion, according to Universal’s own rules.
The top of the altar showcases 100 square meters of gold stained glass windows, in order to make the faithful to feel as if they were looking at an open box of gold. Everything will be broadcast on two large screens brought from Belgium. The church will also house a museum about the Old Testament. Macedo expects to turn it into a tourist attraction in Sao Paulo.
Macedo appeared for the first time on FORBES’ billionaires ranking last year, with a net worth estimated at $1.3 billion. The bulk of Macedo’s fortune comes from his ownership of Rede Record, Brazil’s second-largest broadcaster, which he acquired in 1990 from tycoon Silvio Santos. It’s not clear where he got the money to buy the company. Brazil’s Public Ministry has probed the question for more than 10 years. Reports have suggested he used church funds. Macedo won’t comment.
In addition to that, he also spent 11 days in jail in 1992 on accusations of charlatanism and has been accused of other crimes such as money laundering and siphoning off church funds for his own enrichment, although he was never convicted of these crimes. He also owns a 49% stake in privately-held bank Banco Renner, whose interest rates are among the highest in Brazil.
Such wealth makes him the richest religious leader in Brazil, or perhaps in the world, as Macedo himself sarcastically declared once notified about his inclusion in our ranking. “FORBES stated I am the richest pastor in Brazil. Once I heard that, I was furious. I’m not the richest pastor in Brazil — I am the richest pastor in the world! I doubt there is another pastor richer than I anywhere else,” Macedo said in a video that went viral early last year.