Edir Macedo: Brazil's 'billionaire bishop'

A potent combination of business acumen and religious fervour has seen Edir Macedo's controversial church surge in popularity.

Few people in Britain have heard of Edir Macedo and his Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, says The Guardian. But he's here in the midst of us. The queue snaking a third of a mile towards Trafalgar Square at the launch of his new book, Nothing To Lose, told its own story.

Having sold a million copies in South America and parts of Africa, "the hugely controversial preacher" has hit Britain big time. There are now 27 branches of the Universal Church in cities across the country and counting. At the London event, 15,000 copies of the book were sold on the first day at £12 each.

"Good business." That's what it's all about for Macedo, says The Economist. He and his church have prospered by offering a "religion of results to the upwardly mobile". This most accessible of churches sends out the message that office workers could just pop in for "a Tuesday-lunchtime exorcism at the Sao Paulo cathedral" if redemption fails, you can still use the free bathroom.

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Macedo's message that he can take you "from nothing to something" is like cat-nip to followers, says The New York Times. But he's been accused of siphoning off billions in donations, exploiting worshippers, and been the subject of dozens of criminal inquiries. No charges have stuck.

Supporters say it's part of an "orchestrated campaign" against him. But Macedo's "prosperity theology" has made him the richest of a clique of Brazilian Pentecostal pastors now throwing their weight around politically (see below). With a personal worth of $1.2bn, his assets include Rede Record one of the country's largest TV networks.

Known to virtually everyone in Brazil by the title he created for himself: O Bispo ("The Bishop"), Macedo is an unlikely superstar, says Bloomberg Businessweek: short and slight with "deformed fingers and a sparse crown of greying hair". But he uses that to his advantage, portraying himself as a prime example of how "tithing" (giving 10% of your income to the church) can elevate you, and your financial prospects, in the eyes of God.

Baptised a Catholic, he was 18 when he started attending Pentecostal services held by a Canadian preacher to combat "a perpetually empty feeling". At 30, he gave up his job as a lottery office worker to dedicate himself full time to Jesus, renting space in an old funeral parlour and gaining a reputation for passionate preaching and miracle-working. By the 1980s, when he opened his first US outpost in New York, the Universal Church was churning out two new churches a month.

What would Jesus think of "the billionaire bishop" and his bling? Macedo's flock is in no doubt. "If Jesus were here today, he'd be wearing fine leather shoes. He'd have a shirt of French silk and a Pierre Cardin suit," says one pastor. "He'd travel by... private jet. And all this for what? To better preach the word of God."

A McDonald's for saving souls

"The Universal Church is like a company for saving souls" and Macedo is "the chief executive", says Joao Batista Ramos da Silva, an ex-national congressman in Brazil and high-ranking pastor in the church, who was once caught aboard a private plane with ten million reais ($5m) stuffed in suitcases.

Like his boss, Batista continues to face what he describes as "the same old reheated charges" of money laundering and conspiracy, says Alex Cuadros in Businessweek. But it doesn't seem to have affected the church's popularity; or, indeed, Macedo's coffers. "The tithe is no longer 10%," runs a long-standing joke. "It'sten for the father,ten for the spirit, andten for the son."

It's no laughing matter when you consider the lives that have been wrecked by this most rapacious of churches, says Mark Bridge in The Times. In Britain, there's plenty of evidence that it has encouraged congregations "to sell all their possessions and default on their bills in order to donate more money".

In 2008-2009, donations averaged £225,558 per congregation 600% more than was raised by the Church of England. At one session, we saw the pastor encourage his flock "to give cash in exchange for strips of his tie, which he said were invested with God's power". Then there's the emotional damage. This was the church where eight-year-old Victoria Climbi was brought to a service "to be exorcised of demons" in 2000, shortly before her murder.

Macedo's church has piggybacked a Pentecostalism surge in Latin America that's broken "the Roman Catholic Church's monopoly", write John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge in God is Back. In some cities, the "drive-thru de orao" (prayer drive-through) is almost as ubiquitous as McDonald's.

The evangelists are a rising political force, says Joe Leahy in the FT. They have "one of the largest voting blocs in [Brazil's] lower house of Congress" and use it "to pursue an anti-gay and anti-abortion agenda". Macedo for president? Stranger things have happened.