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Billionaire Bishop Charged With Bilking Brazil's Pentacostals, Sending Money to US

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Tagging her "Dynamite Dilma," Newsweek is giving Americans a closer look at the first woman leader to open a session of the UN General Assembly on the cover of their latest edition. But back in Brazil she's setting off political pyrotechnics with a tough anti-corruption campaign that could mean hard time for leaders of faith-based groups who preach the evils of government while sticking the hand of god into the cookie jar.

After a long investigation by the federal police Brazil's attorney general is finally litigating the big fraud and racketeering case against the self-anointed Pentecostal Bishop Edir Macedo, founder and leader of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG). With a net worth estimated at $2 billion and a cathedral and palatial home in Miami, Bishop Macedo's fortune equals that of Manhattan real estate tycoon Donald Trump.

The billionaire bishop wields considerable political influence through his 90 percent ownership of Rede Record, one of the largest privately held media organizations in the Americas. According to Brazilian and English websites Rede Record reaches over 170 nations on five continents and maintains an affiliate relationship with Atlanta-based CNN International. While families struggle to pay high fees to cable TV operators content offered by TV Record penetrates 77% of Brazilian households as an open channel, free to all. Bishop Macedo is Brazil's most popular televangelist.

Baptized a Roman Catholic, Macedo worked for the national lottery before founding his church in 1976, inspired by the teachings of Canadian Pentacostal Bishop Bob Macelester. He then developed his personal brand of preaching called "prosperity theology" which gained him favor with the US-backed military junta because it countered the Catholic doctrines of liberation theology that were popular among Brazil's militant left.

Bishop Macedo, former congressman Bishop João Batista Ramos da Silva and two other senior churchmen must now prove that they are innocent of forming a quadrilha, the Brazilian equivalent of a RICO rap. They are charged with conspiracy, money laundering, tax evasion, capital flight to US and other offshore banks and defrauding UCKG members.

Bishop Ramos da Silva was apprehended by authorities at the Brasília airport accompanying seven suitcases containing 10 million reals in cash. Veja magazine has reported that the found money represented tithes made by economically disadvantaged UCKG members to support church projects they were told would increase their personal wealth.

Because it involves an Apostolic Pentecostal denomination operating in a nation where the Roman Catholic church is the official religion the case of the billionaire bishop presents a strong test for the fabric of Brazil's constitutional republic and the politics of social inclusion implemented by Dilma and former president Lula.

As a frequent public critic of Roman Catholics and Afro-Brazilian religions Bishop Macedo has molded his 8 million Apostolic followers into a spiritual army who seek to convert or exclude -- not include -- people who do not hold their beliefs. They are crusading for the same theocratic agenda proffered by the predominantly Caucasian American New Apostolic Reformation movement that is backing Texas republican governor Rick Perry in his bid to unseat president Barack Obama in the 2012 US election.

The visceral, theocratic stage presence of Macedo and Perry hearkens back to the windup and pitch pioneered by former Major League Baseball star and Apostolic evangelist Billy Sunday, who dazzled Americans during Prohibition, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression.

Brazil's 12 million followers of the US-guided Assemblies of God church also support the key messages voiced by Macedo and Perry, notably downsizing government infrastructure, crushing organized labor, replacing public education with fundamentalist religious schooling, chastising gays are sinners and denying women the right to choose. A corruption scandal involving an Assemblies of God pastor recently resulted in dozens of arrests and caused the resignation of the minister for tourism from Dilma's cabinet.

The most contentious anti-Catholic act committed by Bishop Macedo's church featured Bishop Sergio von Helde captured by the scientific miracle of television beating on and cursing a statue of Brazil's patron saint Our Lady Aparecida, on the national holiday honoring her. Bishop Macedo issued a generic apology, then counter-attacked, blaming Rede Globo, his main competitor in the open channel TV market for exploiting the event to boost its market share.

The Aparecida affair, reminiscent of Templars who were burned at the stake for spitting on the image of Jesus after losing control of the Holy Land, touched off a national conversation in Brazil speculating on whether the billionaire bishop is an agent of Freemasonry that continues to be fueled by mainstream and online media.

Amping up the conspiratorial tone of the coverage, the Guardian has even reported that Bishop Macedo, who praises John D. Rockefeller and other "robber barons" in his sermons, has received funding from Rockefeller interests. Portugal, which colonized Brazil was the only European nation to not ban the Templars and Freemasonry after the pullback from the Holy Land and the Inquisition. Like the Roman Catholic organization Opus Dei, the Templars and Freemasonry have factions and agendas that cut both ways. But in Macedo's case, regardless of his side-beliefs, his methods are an impediment to inter-faith dialogue in Brazil and represent extremism in a global economy facing unstable institutions.

As the world's largest Roman Catholic nation, Brazil is well placed to provide a candidate who could be selected as the next Pope. But if justice in the case against Bishop Macedo and his quadrilha is not definitive and he maneuvers out of charges or makes deals with prosecutors -- as he has done in the past -- he could rebound with a coalition of followers who seek to damage Brazil's reputation in Catholic circles world-wide. His ability to provide media coverage to favored politicians and NGOs could cause problems for Dilma's tenuous coalition in the run up to the 2014 presidential vote.

If one accepts the concept of manufactured faith, Bishop Macedo and his mystical theocratic visions are transforming Brazil's Pentecostals into a religion on steroids. Ironically, his $200 million replica of The Temple of Solomon that was used by the Templars in Jerusalem has drawn praise from some Jewish groups in the US and is scheduled to open in São Paulo before Brazil hosts the 2014 World Cup, during the heat of the next presidential election campaign.