- The Washington Times - Friday, April 27, 2007

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. 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 about 1,200 temples in Brazil, the United States, Argentina and Italy. Its “March for Jesus” rally last year drew about 3 million faithful.

The Hernandeses’ followers say they see their arrest in Florida and the charges in Brazil as part of general persecution of 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, said 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.

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