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The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God: A Brazilian Church Finds Success in

Southern Africa
Author(s): Paul Freston
Source: Journal of Religion in Africa, Vol. 35, Fasc. 1, New Dimensions in the Study of
Pentecostalism (Feb., 2005), pp. 33-65
Published by: Brill
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(Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and
Federal University of Sao Carlos, Brazil)


The Univ?rsal Church of the Kingdom of God, a Brazilian Pentecostal

which in little more than a decade has had considerable success in souther
is analyzed as a new phenomenon in the region's religious world, bypass
West and straddling existing ecclesiastical typologies. However, its success
limited virtually to three countries in the region, and the reasons for its
democratic South Africa and post-Marxist Mozambique and Angola a
ined. In the Lusophone sphere, its Brazilian cultural heritage and med
have made it a powerful social force; and in the new South Africa (de
strong contrast in race relations with its Brazilian homeland), it has foun
try with similar levels of development and similar inequalities, within whic
been able to fill a niche in the local religious field newly emerged from a
and to begin a process of South Africanization.


The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG), w

more than 400 congregations in southern Africa, is the first major
ple in the region of a new phenomenon: a successful church
of neither First World nor African origin, but is part of the
transnationalization of Third World evangelical religion. Althou
churches of Asian or Latin American origin have arrived in s
Africa (above all, Brazilian groups in the Lusophone countries
can rival the UCKG in its numerical growth and impact o
awareness. Indeed, it is possible that no Christian denomination
in the Third World has ever been exported so successfully and

1 The author wishes to thank Teresa Cruz e Silva and Fatima Viegas for
tion on Mozambique and Angola, respectively.

? Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2005 Journal of Religion in Africa, 35.1

Also available on line -

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34 Paul Freston

only 27 years after its establishment in 1977, it has over a thousand

churches in some 80 countries around the world, outside its native

The UCKG in southern Africa represents, therefore, one of the most

striking cases of trans-continental Christian missionizing within the Third
World. The developed West is totally omitted from this trajectory, a
situation which will presumably become ever more common. On cur-
rent trends, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa will become the
numerically dominant regions of global Christianity, but little attention
has yet been paid to the links between them. Thus, the phenomenon
of the Universal Church in southern Africa has to be located not only
in the local religious and political fields, but also in the context of the
growing power of Third World Pentecostalism, Brazilian evangelical
missionary efforts in Africa and the UCKG's own global expansion.
With these broader contexts in mind, I shall examine the evolution
and current state of the UCKG in the region; look at the strategies
used; suggest reasons for its impressive growth in South Africa and the
Lusophone countries, as well as for the resistance encountered; analyze
its relationship to the local religious and political fields; and ponder its
significance in post-apartheid South Africa and in post-Marxist and
post-war Mozambique and Angola. While Africa is not the main focus
of my research, I have written on evangelicals and politics in some
southern African countries (Freston 2001a and Freston 2004a) and have
done some field research on the Universal Church in South Africa and

Mozambique. I have also published extensively on the UCKG in its

Brazilian homeland (Freston 1994; Freston 1995; Freston 1999) and in
its expansion into Europe (Freston 2001b) and Asia (Freston 2003). I
am currently researching the exporting of Brazilian evangelical religion
in general (Freston 2004b).

The UCKG in context

One of the key religious changes of the late twentieth century was
the transformation of Pentecostalism into a global religion and the shift
in its centre of numerical growth and missionary initiative to the Third
World. This growth and transnational expansion have been largely inde-
pendent of the churches of the developed West, stressing the polycen-
tric nature of current Christian globalization, in both its diasporic and
missionary forms.
In Latin America, Pentecostalism is now much more important than
the historical Protestant churches. In the 2000 Brazilian census, Protestants

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The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God 35

made up 15.5 per cent of the population, some 26 million people of

whom 68 per cent were in Pentecostal churches. While some of these
are imported denominations now long under national leadership (such
as the Assemblies of God), no newly implanted foreign church has been
successful in Brazil for many decades, and there is a totally national
dynamic of institutional creation, of which the UCKG is a major
instance. Autonomous exporting expresses the autonomy already acquired
within the national religious field.
In comparison, Africa's non-Catholic Christianity is more complex,
with stronger historical churches and, in places, huge African inde-
pendent churches. The latter are in some ways the equivalent of the
large autonomous Latin American churches such as the UCKG and
Chile's Iglesia Metodista Pentecostal; and some authors (e.g. Maxwell
1999) have stressed the Pentecostal links of the classical AICs. Pente-
costalism in Africa can thus be considered by some authors to include
some of the older AICs, the classical Pentecostal denominations imported
from the West and the explosion of newer independent charismatic
churches especially since the 1970s. As we shall see, however, the
UCKG is a new addition to southern Africa's religious field not only
in its geographical origin but also in its characteristics, which straddle
the existing typologies.
The UCKG's success in southern Africa illustrates the truth of Gifford's

statement that something more complex than an indigenous Pentecostal

explosion is going on in Africa. External links do indeed remain impor-
tant, but Gifford's conclusion (1998: 322) regarding their significance
('the shocking inequality of cultural forces' today) has to be relativized
in the case of the UCKG. While it has become impressively powerful,
the church remains an essentially lower-class institution from a coun-
try that enjoys only the same level of per capita income as the better-
off nations of southern Africa.

The missionary effort of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of

God is but one case of Brazilian Protestant missions, which in their
turn are a leading instance (after South Korea) of the rise of Protestant
missionizing from the global South. From around 400 in 1989, there
are now about 2,500 Brazilian Protestant missionaries, nearly 90 per
cent of whom are sent by missionary societies resulting from Brazilian
initiative. The receiving countries (over 70) cover all the continents.
Africa receives about 20 per cent of these Brazilian missionaries, with
Portuguese-speaking countries such as Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau
leading the way.
The Brazilian missionary effort has not been accompanied by the

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36 Paul Freston

dose of messianism of many Korean and some Ghanaian missionaries

regarding the present or future role of their countries in the world (e.g.
the Ghanaian missionary booklet which sees Ghana as a divinely-chosen
country along with the US and Israel [Freston 2004b]). Rather, Brazilians
have wanted to believe that their cultural and racial mix equipped them
perfectly for cross-cultural engagement. But ease in breaking barriers
and mixing in new environments is not the same as cultural sensitiv-
ity; in fact, it may lead merely to quicker mistakes. While Brazil is a
country of considerable racial inter-marriage, few people are used to
regular contact with other languages and cultures. Precisely where things
were assumed to be easiest, in Portugal and Portuguese-speaking Africa,
the mistakes (in terms of cultural insensitivity) have been greatest, caus-
ing some resentment amongst local church leaders. Nevertheless, Brazilian
missionaries in Africa unanimously find their Brazilian identity to be an
advantage in their relations with the people. In Portuguese-speaking
countries, Brazilians are part of the known universe, if only through
music and TV soap operas. One blonde Brazilian missionary in Angola
in the 1980s found she was often taken to be Russian; upon discover-
ing she was Brazilian, Angolans would exclaim: 'then you are our sis-
ter!' Even outside the Lusophone sphere, Brazilian identity (as 'a peaceful
country which wins the World Cup') is generally an advantage, usu-
ally supplemented by the impression of exuding greater 'human warmth'
than other foreign missionaries. This is the case whatever the colour
and linguistic competence of the Brazilian concerned. One black UCKG
bishop, having worked in five African countries preaching 'in impro-
vised English' and going through 'a lot of embarrassment', had no
complaints about the way the people had treated him (Plenitude 75,
2001: 31).
The same man, however, says he was 'expelled from the office of
the foreign minister of one country, because I couldn't make myself
understood in my poor English', which points to the problems the
UCKG has encountered in some African countries from elites and gov-
ernments. A contributory factor in this is the church's model of mis-
sions. While the historical churches (such as the Brazilian Presbyterians)
prefer to work with sister-churches abroad, responding to requests for
missionaries with specific qualifications (e.g. in church-planting, youth
work, etc.), and many inter-denominational agencies seek to open new
autochthonous denominations in the country of destination, allowing
the group of new national believers to decide on their course of action,
the UCKG and most other Brazilian Pentecostal denominations prac-
tise a model of direct ecclesiastical transplant, founding branches of

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The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God 37

their denomination around the globe and employing everywhere vir-

tually the same techniques that have served them well in Brazil.

The global expansion of the UCKG

The Igrja Universal do Reino de Deus was founded in 1977 in a poor

suburb of Rio de Janeiro by Edir Macedo, a white, lower-middle-class
former state lottery employee. I examine the characteristics of this
church in other texts (Freston 1994, 1995, 1999). Here, I mention only
aspects relevant for understanding its global expansion.
Brazil has the largest community of Pentecostals in the world, and
many denominations have expanded abroad (especially God is Love
and the Christian Congregation). But the speed and impact of the
UCKG's transnational expansion are exceptional, having much to do
with the church's unique combination of elements. The social compo-
sition of the UCKG is lower even than that of most Pentecostal churches

(as reflected in lower income levels, inferior levels of schooling and

darker average colour of members). This grassroots base is linked with
institutional power because of hierarchical organization, political strength
(over 20 members of the Brazilian congress), social impact (through its
large social work founded in 1994), financial wealth and media empire
(including TV Record, Brazil's third largest television network, which
the UCKG acquired in 1989). It is above all a religion of the large
cities, both in Brazil and abroad.
From the mid-1980s, and especially in the 1990s, the UCKG invested
heavily in foreign expansion. It clearly sees itself as having a 'universal'
vocation, in the 'horizontal' sense of geographical spread as well as in
the 'vertical' sense of the penetration of social institutions such as pol-
itics and the media. There are many indications of the importance the
church attributes to its global spread. Its bishops are disproportionately
concentrated abroad. Many of its leading figures have been pioneer
missionaries, for example Bishop Rodrigues, political leader of the church
for many years and still a federal deputy in Brazil, who worked in
Portugal and southern Africa, and Bishop Crivella, now a senator, who
directed the work in the whole African continent until 1999. Another
indication is the care taken when starting work in new countries. A
commission investigates the probabilities of success, studies relevant laws,
devises the legal constitution of the church, evaluates the most appro-
priate discourse and the best locations for churches, besides carrying
out rental or purchase of buildings (Vja, 19/4/95; 23/4/97). The auto-
biography of a former pastor (Justino 1995: 100) describes how he

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38 Paul Freston

made an exploratory visit to South Africa (probably in 1989 or 1990)

while helping to pioneer the UCKG in Portugal. In addition, the church's
media always give considerable space to its activities abroad. Although
the articles sometimes contain dubious information about the nation

concerned (Uganda, for example, is described as an 'Islamic country'

[Folha Universal 12/9/99]), the information about the growth of the
UCKG itself is generally plausible, and verifiable information (such as
addresses) have always proved to be correct.
As with everything the Universal Church does, its transnational expan-
sion is centrally planned. This contrasts with some Pentecostal churches,
which follow the subjective 'call' of some member who 'feels led' to
start a church in, for example, Kenya. The UCKG is not totally closed
to such individual initiatives, as we can deduce from the opening of a
church in Ethiopia at the request of an Ethiopian who had become
familiar with the Universal Church in South Africa (Folha Universal,
1/3/98). But it may be significant that the individual concerned was
not a Brazilian but a native of the country. On the other hand, an
article in a UCKG magazine (Plenitude, 75, 2001) tells us that the church
sends abroad about one hundred Brazilian pastors per year. In their
accounts, there is no mention of a personal call to this or that coun-
try; the emphasis is always on obedience to an institutional call, which
often includes 'embarrassing situations', above all through linguistic
incompetence, even in countries where the official language is English.
This hints at the low educational level of most UCKG missionaries, in
tune with the pietist tradition of missionary vocation which is little con-
cerned with educational or social qualifications.
What then motivates the UCKG in its choice of countries? Given

the importance of money in its prosperity theology and the financia

success of the church, one possible answer would be the perceive
profitability of each country. However, while it is reasonable to sup-
pose that monetary calculations are always present, they rarely oper-
ate alone, and could scarcely be the deciding factor in the case of man
African countries (there are indications that the church runs at a deficit
in most of the continent [Vea 20/8/97]). Like many churches, th
UCKG seems also to seek other forms of recompense. One of these i
numerical success, so valued in Brazilian evangelical circles. This i
clearly a plausible motivation for a church that enjoys organizing hug
events and whose newspapers are full of photographs showing packed
auditoria. In addition, in the case of a highly proselytistic church, its
global expansion must have some connection with the romance o
fulfilling the classic Christian missionary mandate. This, in fact, woul

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The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God 39

be the UCKG's first reply to our question. As the official website states,
'the Universal Church was born with the purpose of fulfilling the word
of God: "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all people"
(Mark 16: 15)'. Within this basic impulse, the choice of countries can
be influenced by diverse criteria. One would be cultural proximity,
which is the reason why four out of every five Brazilian evangelical
missionaries work in Portuguese- or Spanish-speaking countries. On the
other hand, mission sometimes has a symbolic value, based on difficulty
or remoteness. Many missionary actions are imbued with the mystique
of the 'ends of the earth', which, in the words of Jesus (Acts 1: 8), the
disciples were ordered to evangelize.
Thus, while missions reflect the self-confidence generated by numer-
ical growth in Brazil (and rivalry for a larger slice of the national reli-
gious field spills over into rivalry in missions), they also reflect an
independent spirit, the capacity to see oneself not as the end of the
process, or in biblical language as 'the ends of the earth', but rather
as a new centre of Christianity from which the ends of the earth must
be reached. For churches resulting from North American or European
missions, this often requires a costly change in mentality; but it is much
easier for churches initiated in Brazil without any foreign connections,
such as the UCKG.

Armed with this outlook, the Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus beg
its global expansion in the 1980s. Conflicting internal versions place
arrival in North America either in 1980 or in 1986; in any case
achieved little success in the United States until switching to the
of Spanish in 1991. Expansion into Spanish-speaking Latin Ame
began in 1985, into Europe in 1989, Africa in 1991 and Asia in 199
Its countries of greatest success (outside southern Africa) include Portug
Argentina, Colombia and the US. While some church sources curren
(October 2004) claim a presence in 'over 85 countries', a list of addre
names only 71, of which 29 are in Africa, 17 in Latin America, 15
Europe, two in Anglophone North America, three in the Caribbean
and five in Asia (
The period of quickest global expansion was in the early and mi
1990s. The devaluation of the Brazilian real in January 1999, after f
years of near parity with the dollar, seems clearly related to the cu
rent difficulties of Brazilian missions in general. And despite its im
of a wealthy church, the UCKG is not exempt from such limitation
especially when its transnational growth is related to the church's ot
priorities. The years of rapid geographical expansion may have cau
a diversification of financial commitments which became inviable with

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40 Paul Freston

the devaluation, since the church still depends considerably on resources

raised in Brazil. In addition, the currencies of two other countries where
the church has done well, South Africa and Argentina, were also deval-
ued in the early years of the new century.
Much of Africa has the advantage of being cheap for missions, a
factor which may have encouraged the Universal Church to invest more
in the continent. Restricting itself initially to the Lusophone sphere
(Angola 1991; Mozambique 1992; Portuguese-speakers in South Africa
1992), it soon (Soweto 1993) made the transition to Anglophone, and
later Francophone, work. By 1998, the church was so proud of its suc-
cess that it introduced a regular page in its main journal in Brazil (the
Folha Universal) called 'Conexao Africa', dedicated entirely to news of
the UCKG on the continent. A photograph in one of its South African
publications (Crivella 1999) shows UCKG members from various parts
of Africa on a visit to Israel, being baptized in the River Jordan.
Southern Africa has become in many ways (number of churches,
media presence, social impact) the UCKG's most successful region in
the world, outside Brazil. It is present in every country of the region;
but even so, its fate has varied greatly from country to country. South
Africa, Angola and Mozambique are amongst its greatest success sto-
ries anywhere, and Zimbabwe and Lesotho show signs of modest advance;
but in the rest of the region little has yet been achieved.
Although the UCKG has always tried to be 'universally' available,
in various parts of the world it has become, in effect, an 'ethnic church',
one of black immigrants in much of Europe, of Hispanics in the US
and of Brazilian immigrants in Japan. However, in Portugal and Latin
America, it has become established amongst the native population, and
the same is true of Africa. Thus far, its transnationalization has depended
largely on three cultural blocs: the Latin American (including Hispanics
in the US), the Lusophone and the African (including the African dias-
pora in Europe). The Latin, Lusophone and African worlds, with their
linguistic and/or cultural links with Brazil, account for perhaps 90 per
cent of the UCKG's international membership.

Message and methods

In one of its first articles on the church in Angola, the Folha Universal
(14/8/94) stresses that the methods used there are the same as in Brazil,
since 'the UCKG is the 'only church in the world without any divi-
sions'. In its worldwide expansion, the church has shown flexibility in
its name (operating under another name in countries where that of the

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The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God 41

UCKG has acquired a bad reputation) and in small 'glocalizing' method-

ological adaptations, but always remaining essentially the same in doc-
trine, organization and emphases. Key factors in this uniformity are its
clericalism (pastors being necessary for the key function of exorcism)
and its centralized control. Congregational participation in decision-
making is eliminated and strong horizontal ties among members are
de-emphasized. In addition, the lower clergy are transferred constantly
to prevent the emergence of personal loyalties and local power bases.
The bishop of Kenya, for example, is a Brazilian of 34 years of age,
who has already been a pastor in at least 11 churches in different coun-
tries (Folha Universal 1/3/98).
In its doctrinal statements, as exemplified by the one on its South
African website (, the church comes solidly within
orthodox Christianity (the Trinity), within Protestantism ('two ordinances,
baptism in water and the Lord's Supper'), within evangelicalism ('the
Scriptures as fully inspired and the supreme and final authority for faith
and life'; 'the substitutionary sacrifice ofJesus') and within Pentecostalism
('baptism of the Holy Spirit'; 'divine healing is an integral part of the
Gospel'). Nevertheless, it has been much criticized by evangelicals in
various countries, although the tendency in Brazil itself has been to
somewhat greater acceptance. Some evangelicals have accused the
UCKG of being 'syncretistic', and it is true that it breaks radically with
the Brazilian Protestant tradition. But although it makes ample use of
symbols (a leaflet from its Cathedral in Cape Town talks of 'grapes
and wheat flour from Israel' being distributed the following Sunday),
there is no use of images in worship. While seeing itself as heir to the
evangelical tradition, the church also has links with traditional Brazilian
religiosity. In the phrase of one leader, 'we do not follow a European
or American evangelical tradition; we start from the religious practice
of the people'. It appears to see itself as a Latin American Protestant
reformation, that is, a Protestantism attuned to the religious traditions
of the continent. In response to accusations of syncretism, it replies that
one can be evangelical and still use popular religious traditions as a
starting point. The result is a mix of Catholic organization and aspira-
tions and acceptance of the reality (although not of the benign nature)
of the worldview of the Afro-Brazilian religions, all filtered through a
fervent, biblically inspired religiosity. However, behind the sensational-
ism of its exorcisms and constant monetary appeals, we can see in the
UCKG the typical pietist emphases on 'prayer, constant communion
with God and Bible reading, allied to a life of Christian purity and integrity'
(Macedo n/d: 51). Some sermons, in their stress on self-effacing service

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42 Paul Freston

of God, actually seem to undermine the prosperity gospel preached on

other days of the week.
In general, however, the self-image of the UCKG is of a church
which has come to do what other churches did not have the courage
to do. According to the founder, Edir Macedo, it is time to 'leave mere
charismatic preaching and give full preaching', i.e. that 'Jesus saves,
baptizes in the Holy Spirit, but also, and above all, frees people who
are oppressed by the devil' (Macedo n/d: 118). When speaking of
Africa, the television documentary produced by the church to com-
memorate its first 20 years (TV Record, 11/10/97) said that 'the tra-
ditional church had its space in Africa and planted a good seed. Now,
the church of power, which shows healing, which shows the spirits
being cast out... brings a definitive change'.
Exorcism, healing and prosperity are the basis of the practical teach-
ing of the UCKG. A faith that is sufficiently bold will produce evident
this-worldly results. 'How can you believe in God if you do not see
the results of your faith?' People must learn to 'make use of their faith',
which involves 'revolting against your problems' (www.igrejauniver- Moments of prayer in the UCKG are punctuated with
phrases such as 'I do not accept it' and 'show God how revolted you
are'. The church's Angolan website stresses the UCKG's mission to
'free laypeople from their prejudices and lead to a transformation which
exceeds all expectations'. This involves deliverance (from evil spirits),
salvation of the soul and, above all, prosperity ('the gravest problem in
a society corrupted by materialism' []). In the
Brazilian context, the main symbolic adversary is the Brazilian religious
melange of popular Catholicism, spiritism and Afro-Brazilian religions,
and the spiritual entities of the latter religions are often explicitly called
upon by the pastors to manifest themselves in people present, so that
they may be driven out by the superior power of the Holy Spirit.
The UCKG's emphasis on prosperity theology includes not only con-
stant appeals to donate 'sacrificially' to the church but also exhorta-
tions to become self-employed. Its publications often contain advice on
opening various branches of business. The church's message, therefore,
may well reinforce the work ethic and petty entrepreneurial initiative
in adverse contexts. The church proudly tells the story of a member
in Cape Town who won the title of salesman of the month for selling
the Big Issue magazine on the street; on SABC television he stressed
that he was merely using the 'faith, courage and determination' that
he had learnt at the UCKG. As has been pointed out in other con-
texts (e.g. Oro and Seman [2001] on the UCKG in Argentina), people

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The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God 43

unconcerned with upward social mobility will feel out of place in the
church. Even in the poorer countries of southern Africa, globalizing
tendencies increase awareness of inequalities and stoke the fires of eco-
nomic desire, thus discouraging fatalism and acceptance and preparing
the ground for the 'revolt' against one's conditions which the Universal
Church preaches.
But, rather than (very distant) prosperity, the church seems aware
that, as Maxwell (2000a) says regarding Zimbabwe, township Pentecostals
are often seeking security, protection from evil spirits and witchcraft,
and provision of fertility, healing, employment and a stable marriage.
Thus, leaflets from the UCKG Cathedral in Cape Town claim, as the
church's greatest crown, that 'above all, people without a name, with-
out honour, without self-confidence and self-esteem [have become] dig-
nities, honourable heads of families, skilled workers and motivated youth'.
The range of concerns addressed by the church rivals that of the AICs,
promising cures 'for any kind of problem, financial, sentimental, health,
depression, vices, unemployment, family disharmony, insomnia, headaches,
Aids, homosexuality, envy, bad luck, witchcraft and curses'. The weekly
calendar of services at its churches reflects this. As a church which (in
its major venues) offers up to seven services per day, seven days a week,
each day is dedicated to a different theme. Mondays are for financial
problems; Tuesdays for health; Wednesdays for 'the Holy Spirit' or
'personal spiritual development'; Thursdays for the family; Fridays for
deliverance from spiritual oppression; Saturdays for 'the therapy of love'
(i.e. finding a mate) and also for 'impossible causes'; and Sundays are
for 'an encounter with God' and Bible study. It is thus necessary to
study the complete range of services in order to understand the draw-
ing power of the church. Although individual attenders may prefer one
particular day, all are encouraged to come to the more pietistic Wednesday
and Sunday services. In addition, there are occasional special events,
such as the 'Campaign of the Holy Mantle' against fear of being mugged
in Johannesburg; or else, periodic 'chains' (modelled on Catholic nove-
nas), such as the 'Chain of Fire' for several successive Fridays at the
UCKG headquarters in Johannesburg, at which 'God will consume
your problems' ( Members may go through a process
of multiple exorcism during these periods.
The UCKG differs from most Third World Pentecostal groups in
some key aspects. Firstly, its economic and media power can guarantee
it visibility in any country where that is politically possible. Its many tele-
vision and radio programmes are distant from the American concept of
'electronic church', being totally integrated with an ecclesiastical strategy.

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44 Paul Freston

Secondly, it is relatively non-sectarian (in the sociological sense). Like a

territorial church, it combines the offering of religious services to all those
interested, with the Christian concepts of commitment and community.
Also like a church, it works with the concept of layers. At the bottom
level, services are offered to a fluctuating clientele. At the next level
come the members, but few behavioural demands are made of them.
Afterwards, come the obreiros, volunteer lay helpers, for whom demands
are stricter. Finally, there are the paid pastors. Thirdly, as a church
with almost continuous services, it is open to the street and the initial
approximation is easy and uncommitted, allowing it to tap into social
sectors unlikely to darken the doors of most Pentecostal buildings.
Unlike in much of Asia (Freston 2003), the Universal's highly visi-
ble methods (mass dissemination, open preaching, extensive use of the
electronic media, social work) are generally feasible in southern Africa.
Outside the developed West, southern Africa is considered one of the
most religiously free areas of the world (Marshall 2000: 26), with few
barriers for foreign missionaries or new religious movements. Nevertheless,
as we shall see, problems have been encountered with the authorities
in some countries. In Brazil, the church was for long the object of
media denunciations, law-suits and investigations by the inland revenue
and the federal police. These were partly due to its public exorcisms,
its extravagant promises of prosperity and its aggressive posture toward
Catholicism and Afro-Brazilian religions. But mainly they revolved
around money: the wealth of the leaders and of the church itself, the
origin of the resources to purchase TV Record and the abuse of its
tax-exempt status for commercial activities.
In Brazil, the scandals surrounding the church have receded in recent
years, as it has become more and more lodged in the mainstream of
public life. A symbol of this is Bishop Crivella. After he returned from
South Africa in 1999, he ran a large social work project in an arid
area of north-eastern Brazil, on the basis of which (and of his fame as
a singer of gospel songs which sometimes talk of social problems) he
was elected senator for the state of Rio de Janeiro in 2002 with three
and a quarter million votes, and in 2004 received 22 per cent of the
vote for mayor of Rio.
Abroad, however, the church's problem is that negative information
about it often arrives together with the church itself. The negative image
then predominates among elites before the UCKG can build a popu-
lar base and a political counter-force. In a country with long traditions
of pluralism and religious freedom, this is not serious, but it can be in
countries of more recent democratization and less certain pluralism.

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The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God 45

Notwithstanding, in southern Africa these problems have generally

been overcome, and the greatest limitation on the UCKG's traditional
style of work has perhaps been the Angolan civil war which stuttered
on until 2002. In most countries of the region, the church has laid
stress on social work as a means of gaining the sympathy of the pop-
ulation and sometimes of overcoming political opposition to the church's
Other adaptations to the African environment have been minimal.
It makes timid attempts at 'glocalization' (the adaptation of the global
to local conditions by means of micromarketing techniques) by tuning
into specific problems such as AIDS throughout the continent and crime
in South Africa. A few concessions to African worship practices pep-
per the services, without radically changing the Brazilian matrix. And
everywhere (as Oro and Seman [2001] have shown for Argentina) the
demonic is reinterpreted from the Afro-Brazilian categories into local
conceptions of suffering and of the spirit world. As a South African
pastor said, 'the Lord is going to get the tokoloshe out of you ... Yisha
Sathane, yisha tokoloshe (burn Satan, burn tokoloshe)' (Mail & Guardian
2/4/99). The very marginality of the UCKG in other countries' evan-
gelical fields gives it the freedom to do certain things and meet sup-
pressed demands which other Pentecostal churches cannot easily imitate
without losing their local legitimacy.
That does not mean that the UCKG abroad abandons the posture
it has always adopted in Brazil, of attacking the other religions of the
country from the pulpit and in its media. Apart from Catholicism and
Umbanda in Brazil, examples include traditional African religions in
Africa (Folha Universal 9/8/98), Anglicanism in England (The Sower, May
1996: 19), the Orthodox Church in Russia (Folha Universal 18/8/02),
'Japanese superstitions' (Furucho 2001) and the 'thousands of Indian
gods' (Folha Universal 13/6/99).
The implications of this in Africa are disputed. While Maxwell (2000b)
talks of the cyclical societal cleansing movements of parts of Africa,
characterized by the demonizing of a range of religious entities, and
concludes that such movements have now been Christianized, Hackett
(2003) feels that discourses of demonism and satanism are increasingly
prevalent in Africa (especially among Pentecostals) and have a deleteri-
ous effect for civil society, religious pluralism and freedom of religion.
Democratization has created uncertainties which allow rumours of witch-

craft to flourish. With an eye on the tensions in Nigeria, Hackett says

that 'it seems only a matter of time before others latch onto the ter-
rorist trope and anti-Christ depictions of bin Laden and Saddam Hussein'.

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46 Paul Freston

But it must be stressed that the UCKG does not seem to be involved

in anything like this. Demonization is not necessarily anti-democratic

such discourses only become a danger to democracy if they seek forcibly
to curtail the activities of other religions or to inflame to violence. Bu
in fact it was the UCKG whose activities were (temporarily, as it turned
out) curtailed by the Zambian government (with the support of many
evangelical leaders) because it itself was accused of satanism! The biter
bit, perhaps; but while the Universal has never yet attempted forcibly
to curtail its opponents' activities, it has been the victim of such attempts
by other religious actors, in Zambia and elsewhere.

The UCKG's view of Africa

At first sight, the positive image of Brazilian missionaries in Africa

is not reciprocated by the UCKG pastors. Indeed, their portrayal of
the continent in the church's Brazilian media is overwhelmingly nega
tive, and the massive Christianization of the continent in the past 50
years is written out of the record. We read, for example, that (i
response to the work of the Universal Church) 'Africans abandon their
gods and surrender to Jesus' (Folha Universal 11/10/98). 'The continen
needs evangelising... Besides the superstition of the blacks, it has been
invaded by the Hindu and Muslim religions, which have nothing to do
with African traditions and customs' (TV Record 11/10/97). 'The con-
tinent is the victim of deceiving spirits [who] disguise themselves a
ancestors... Even some traditional evangelical churches accept the wor
ship of ancestors... The mission of the UCKG in the continent is to
awaken the people to the truth and free them from the oppressing spir-
its' (Folha Universal 11/10/98).
Many Brazilians (not only UCKG missionaries) still regard Africa as
'a privileged place for the work of invisible forces' (Oro, Corten and
Dozon 2003: 101). The UCKG media talk of Africans as 'a people
who have for centuries suffered in the iron grasp of malignant forces
referring to spiritual entities rather than to geopolitical exploitation
Indeed, with the help of the Universal Church, 'the land of witchcraf
and idolatry ... is freeing itself from the evils which centuries ago trans-
formed its people into slave labour'. This is not to deny other histor-
ical and contemporary causes: 'African leaders, in general, just as th
colonizers before them, have not cared about the fate of the people.
[But] this does not exclude the spiritual side of the problem... African
live under the dominion of spiritual forces, worshipping demonic beings...
Their pagan teachings lead to conformism, indifference and what we

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The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God 47

might call a "culture of submission" . . Hunger is a consequence of

poverty and the domination which divides people into rich and poor...
But who says that those who are politically dominated always have to
be poor?' (Folha Universal 9/8/98). With regard to South Africa, 'theo-
retically apartheid is over, but in practice it still exists inside each per-
son, since the African people (especially the blacks) do not fight and
do not take hold of what should be theirs' (Folha Universal 17/10/99).
This does not seem to be a recipe for expropriation of white property,
but rather for a spiritual struggle and change of mentality. As Bishop
Macedo said on a trip to Africa, 'people here think the black man was
born to die like a dog. That is their mentality. We are changing this.
The African cannot have this way of thinking. He must believe that
he was born to grow...' (ibid.).
Bishop Crivella, leader of the work in Africa for many years and
now a member of the Brazilian senate, says that 'God is family, and
if Africa suffers [from AIDS] it is because it does not have this notion'
(Folha Universal 20/6/99). Indeed, 'the African people do not have the
same concept of marriage, home and faithfulness as Brazilians do.
Constituting a family is not taken seriously in Africa... Each woman
is worth twelve cows. This reflects the current stage of development of
the African continent' (Folha Universal, 12/9/99; 9/8/98). But lest this
be thought to be pure racial prejudice, the same paper quotes its pas-
tor in Luxemburg: 'the Luxemburgers are cold, racist and very closed'
(ibid., 20/6/99). Perhaps, in the last analysis (and in view of its con-
siderable success in Africa and the multi-racial composition of its pas-
torate), the UCKG vision of the world owes more to ethnocentrism
and lack of empathy with the host populations, whoever they may be.

The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in South Africa

South Africa has arguably one of the highest percentages of evan-

gelical allegiance (in various forms) in the world. Both whites and blacks
are over 75 per cent Christian, with the difference that the former are
decreasing while the latter are increasing in percentage. Catholicism
and mainline Protestantism have both declined, while Pentecostals and
AICs have grown. In 1991, the latter accounted for 36 per cent of the
black population (Hendriks 1995). But in the new openness to the world
after the end of apartheid and the greater possibilities for black mobil-
ity, there is room for newly arrived evangelical phenomena to eat away
at the margins of the AICs, the older Pentecostals and the historical
churches, while also benefiting from new trends such as the accelerating

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48 Paul Freston

Christianization of the Indian community. South Africa's new moment

is in some ways similar to Brazil's: formal democracy and a relatively
vibrant civil society in the midst of extreme inequalities. In its per capita
income level and gross disparities, South Africa is very familiar for
Brazilians, as are the peace without justice and the spiralling crime
rates which are the price of negotiated 'transitions'.
The UCKG began in South Africa in late 1992 amongst Portuguese-
speakers in the Johannesburg area (FU 14/12/97; 20/10/98). As in
other contexts (much of Western Europe, the United States andJapan),
it seems that the UCKG is prepared to use an immigrant group as a
bridgehead, but then resists its consequent characterization as an 'ethnic
church'. Its 'universality' demands that it have the majority population
as its target; but the pressure for results makes it sometimes opt to
begin with an immigrant group, even in a foreign language.
But in the South African case, the transition to the majority popu-
lation and to the English language occurred after only a few months;
by 1993, it was already established in Soweto (FU 14/12/97). The fact
of having achieved this in the dying days of the De Klerk government
is blown up by the church's Brazilian media into a heroic myth of ori-
gins. 'Bishop Marcelo Crivella [a white Brazilian and nephew of the
founder Edir Macedo] arrived in South Africa when apartheid still
ruled... He opened churches for blacks, preached equality between
all men and took the word of God to places where whites could not
even enter at that time' (Plenitude 75, 2001: 33). The first UCKG mis-
sionaries, ten in all, were a mix of Brazilians, Portuguese (the church
had already achieved considerable success in Portugal) and, unusually
for the UCKG, Americans (FU 20/10/98). However, the only American
(a white man) subsequently mentioned is David Higginbotham, who by
1998 was bishop of Durban (FU 15/11/98). In one version of the
church's arrival in the United States in the 1980s, Edir Macedo was
sponsored for his green card by an American pastor called Forrest
Higginbotham (Mariano 1999: 56). In any case, this is the only occa-
sion I have encountered of the UCKG using Americans as missionar-
ies; and indeed, one of the few examples of any sort of link with white
American Christianity (the church having few white attenders in its US
In 1993, beginnings were also made in Durban (with a church at
the Indian Market seating 450) and in Cape Town (in a warehouse in
Woodstock). In central Johannesburg, having started in a basement near
Park Station ('small and simple like most Africans' [FU 1/8/99]), the
church had acquired the whole six-storey building by 1994, subsequently

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The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God 49

transforming it into its first South African 'Cathedral of Faith'. (Cathedrals

began to be built worldwide by the UCKG in the late 1990s, one of
the many very churchly ambitions of this Pentecostal sect. In Portuguese
the name 'Cathedral of Faith', Catedral da Fe, is a direct challenge to
the seat of Catholic archbishops which is known as the Catedral da Se.)
By 1999 a purpose-built cathedral for 4,000 people was inaugurated in
Durban, followed in 2004 by the one in Cape Town. The church
claimed 15 locations in Soweto by 1999 (FU 8/8/99), and in 2004 was
promising a new 7,500-seater building in that region (www.igrejauni-
As elsewhere, the UCKG's trajectory in South Africa has been punc-
tuated by mass events in stadiums. Already in 1995 it claimed to have
brought 50,000 people to a stadium in Soweto for a session of mass
exorcism (0 Estado de S. Paulo 18/9/95; UCKG numbers for big events
should probably be taken with the same pinch of salt as most estimates
of attendance at mass events put out by the organizers). In 1998, a
packed Ellis Park rugby stadium echoed to 'applause, dances and joy-
ful songs of praise, mostly in African languages' (FU 11/10/98). Six
years later, seven stadiums were used simultaneously for the 'Power of
Enough' event, at which the crowd shouted to God that they had had
'enough' of their problems (
By mid-2002, the church was listing 135 addresses ( and had overtaken Portugal as the strongest
UCKG outside Brazil. By mid-2004, that number had risen to 187
(comprised of 165 churches, 19 'special works' and three churches under
the administration of the UCKG Lesotho but with South African

addresses), with the greatest recent growth coming in Gauteng a

the Western Cape. Divided administratively into eleven regions, 5
locations were under the Johannesburg region, 11 in Pretoria and
in Witbank; 23 were in Cape Town; 19 in Durban and 4 in Pie
maritzburg; 16 in Bloemfontein; 14 in East London and 10 in P
Elizabeth; 10 in Rustenberg; and 7 in Polokwane (
With 43 per cent of all churches in the province of Gauteng,
Universal imitates its Brazilian vocation as a religion of the big cit
The total number of members and regular attenders is unkno
although a modest estimate of 300 per church would mean over 50
South Africans have been drawn into the UCKG in under 12 y
of propagation.
Brazil has no tradition of racially segregated churches and the UC
clearly has the ideal of a multi-racial church for South Africa as w
The 21 testimonies posted on its official website in September 2004 wer

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50 Paul Freston

from 13 blacks, 3 coloureds, 3 Indians and 2 whites. But in practice

there are very few whites in the services, and there do not seem to be
any white South African pastors. At the Ellis Park event in 1998, 35
new pastors were consecrated; 22 of these were Brazilian or Portuguese
and 13 were black South Africans, but none were South African whites
(FU 11/10/98). Even so, much more than in any other country, the
UCKG has developed a national leadership. In a 2001 interview, the
UCKG political leader Bishop Rodrigues, who had worked in south-
ern Africa, stated that 'in South Africa we are achieving something we
want all over the African continent, that the church should be guided
and led by nationals... We are already starting to withdraw the Brazilian
missionaries and we have South African bishops' (interview kindly
granted by Alexandre Fonseca; see also Fonseca 2003: 265). However,
most bishops still seem to be Brazilian.
At a midweek afternoon service at the new cathedral in Cape Town
in January 2004, 90 per cent of the 55 or so people present were
women and 100 per cent were black. There were no coloureds or
whites at all. The young black pastor preached in English, although
one song was sung in Xhosa. After the service, another black pastor,
in his late 40s, a native of Pretoria who had been one of the first South
African pastors, told me that it was 'his dream' to visit the UCKG in
Brazil; identical words to those once spoken to me by a Portuguese
pastor in Coimbra. Just as Brazilian Universal pastors all imitate Edir
Macedo's Rio de Janeiro pronunciation, and Portuguese pastors learn
to preach with a Brazilian accent and vocabulary, so UCKG pastors
around the world are taught to 'dream' of seeing their church in all
its magnificence in its native setting.
Whether or not they ever reach Brazil, South African pastors stand
a good chance of being sent abroad as missionaries at some time. In
the same way that the church has used Portuguese pastors (alongside
Brazilians) as missionaries to the rest of Europe, so it is using black
South Africans as missionaries to the rest of Africa, as well as to England,
Jamaica and the United States. (The last-named country may be related
to an attempt to break out of the Hispanic community and into the
African-American world.) Exact numbers are unknown, but the Folha
Universal (12/9/99) talked in 1999 of 'preparing 500 native pastors for
Africa' in Johannesburg (the first class of local UCKG pastors had been
trained there in 1995, less than three years after the arrival of the
church [Crivella 1999: 20]). The Universal may already constitute one
of the most significant efforts at foreign mission ever to come out of
black South Africa.

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The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God 51

It is not only with manpower that South Africa helps the UCKG
throughout the continent, but also financially. In a 1997 interview, a
former missionary who had later left the church stated that the UCKG
was only solvent in two countries in Africa, the losses in all the others
being covered by the South African church, which, he averred, brought
in $900,000 per month (Vja 20/8/97: 11). In the rest of Africa, the
church is said to 'boast discreetly' of being part of the South African
sphere of influence (Corten 2003: 144).
The Universal's activities in South Africa are increasingly diversified.
They include a prison ministry and a hospital group. The latter states
that 'the UCKG does not claim to heal people, but believes that God
can through faith. As a result, always people are advised to follow the
doctors' instructions', a phrase that is repeated on much UCKG liter-
ature and is clearly designed to allay suspicions of quackery. The church
claims to have healed HIV and AIDS (FU 23/5/99; 20/6/99;; yet there is frequent mention of funerals in its local
literature, presumably a reflection of the pandemic's effects, and per-
haps also of the church's appeal to AIDS sufferers who may have found
something other than physical healing there.
There is also a Sunday School work called the Universal School of
the Kids of God to 'help children maintain their relationship with their
Creator and to warn them of the actions of malignant spirits'. On the
social side, there is a 24-hour Helpline, the Stop Suffering Help Centres
(established from 1996 onwards to help the destitute), an Adult Training
Centre to improve job prospects by teaching computer literacy, and a
Job Centre (displaying free of charge over 4,000 jobs per week 'for
those who are not able to buy newspapers or log onto the Internet').
The UCKG has not found South Africa very amenable to its usual
activities in the electronic media. It was twice refused a radio licence

in KwaZulu Natal on the grounds of public interest. But it has two

radio stations, Radio Cidade and Lotus FM and has managed to pre-
sent programmes on other radios and even on television.
Its bookshop displays titles by Brazilian UCKG authors and others
by Americans, including Max Lucado, T.L. Osborn and Tim LaHaye
(of the 'Left Behind' series of apocalyptic novels). But the main publi-
cation is Bishop Crivella's Mutis, Sangomas and Nyangas: Tradition or
Witchcraft? (1999). The church claims that many former sangomas are
now UCKG pastors. 'The common point of all deceiving religions [is
that they] lead people... to receive spirits in their bodies', since evil
spirits cannot express themselves without a body to inhabit. The book
takes pains not to be seen as portraying Africa as especially susceptible

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52 Paul Freston

to such 'deceiving religions' (despite the comments on Africa in the

church's media in Brazil, mentioned earlier). 'In the yellow world, evil
spirits come disguised as... energies of nature'; in India, 'as reincar-
nated gods'; and among the whites, 'as famous and generous people
of the past' (a swipe at Brazil's Kardecist spiritism of French origin, in
which 'the worship of the spirits is clothed in a veil of science'). 'We
don't exclude from this pack of lies the religion of Catholicism', which
teaches the 'worship of idols and the veneration of Mary as a protec-
tive "goddess".' Finally, it is the turn of Africa. 'Because Africans are
a very superstitious people and strongly attached to their families, the
spirits... present themselves as... ancestors. This is the greatest lie of
Africa!' Photos of non-Christian religious practices, African and foreign,
litter the book, emphasizing the shocking and dirty, with black strips
across the eyes of the participants as if they were criminals who could
not be identified. 'Even if a religion speaks about the name ofJesus ...
like the Zion Christian Church or the Catholic Church, it is not from
God. [They] preach demonic doctrines', is Crivella's verdict on two of
the largest forms of Christianity in the country. 'African songs, food,
clothing and respect for elders are... beautiful traditions which must
be perpetuated. But [not] things like worshipping an animal's tail,
sacrificing children to idols... [and] praying by the graves', he con-
cludes, establishing an apparent equivalence between the actions men-
tioned. Among the most common ways people become possessed by
evil in Africa, says Crivella, are direct and indirect involvement with
sangomas and nyangas, family heritage, witchcraft (all those who do
not have the Holy Spirit are potential victims) and by eating food
sacrificed to idols (at funerals). The result of deliverance from posses-
sion will be a victorious life; and a victorious life, for the UCKG, means
one with no addictions or diseases, and where prosperity is something

Crivella's book is aimed at a society in which, according to the health

ministry, 70 per cent of the population consults sangomas, a few of
whom have been known to recommend the use of human body parts
in spells, fuelling the spate of 'muti murders' estimated at around 300
in the last ten years ( 9/9/04; 2/4/02). The book, how-
ever, equates sangomas in general with muti murders, and both with
demon possession, which in turn blocks the 'victorious life' of perfect
health and prosperity. And for those who have never consulted san-
gomas, the other modes of demonic transmission (through inheritance,
witchcraft and funerals) are sufficiently broad to include all who might

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The Universal Church of the KIngdom of God 53

walk through the doors of a Universal church or tune into one of its
programmes. In this way, the UCKG, which was born in a Catholic
context and has expanded largely to other Catholic contexts (Argentina,
Colombia, Portugal, US Hispanics, even Angola and Mozambique in
their heritage of Portuguese colonization), adapts its discourse to a world
which combines a non-Christian religious background with diverse forms
of non-Catholic Christianity.
But the UCKG strategy towards its religious rivals can produce ironic
results. In Swaziland, writes one pastor, 'some local leaders... began
spreading it around that we were sorcerers, that my wife and I flew
at night on a broomstick and sacrificed little children... We had to
leave the country in a hurry' (Plenitude 75, 2001: 32). In a township in
the Free State where the Universal was present, I was assured by mem-
bers of other churches that the Universal pastors were Satanists. Some
leading South African evangelicals were at one time so concerned about
the UCKG that they favoured an investigation by the Human Rights
Commission into its activities. And in 2000, at a meeting jointly spon-
sored by the South African Council of Churches and the Evangelical
Alliance of South Africa, the UCKG was denounced for its 'serious
crimes'. These were based partly on the church's capacity to attract
unbalanced people (the case of a young man who killed his parents
saying the UCKG needed the blood) and partly on incomprehension
of its rich array of symbolic actions (a cardboard 'key that will open
any door', distributed in its services as an incentive to believing that
God can unlock any problem in life, was interpreted as a literal tool
of criminal activity). But the star witness for the prosecution was a for-
mer UCKG pastor whose videotaped testimony (he was supposedly in
hiding for fear of his life) ranged far and wide in its accusations. Having
become one of the first South African pastors in 1994, he claimed that
the church wanted to make him the first black bishop in 1998 (it was
not clear why he had, in the end, not been made bishop). He accused
the church of practising satanic worship and child sacrifice (the victims'
bones were then ground into the salt given out during the services, and
the kidneys were taken to Brazil to be transplanted into the child of a
pastor there); of drug smuggling (an accusation often made against the
UCKG in various countries, but never proven); and of racism (black
pastors were paid less than white ones; white pastors who committed
adultery were treated less harshly than black ones; and racist comments
such as 'these blacks smell'). Whatever the truth about the latter ques-
tions, the fact that all the accusations were being treated seriously at

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54 Paul Freston

a meeting at the headquarters of the South African Council of Churches

illustrates the concern that such a powerful newly-arrived church can
cause in a highly-charged local situation.
Perhaps the mutual accusations of demonism are part of the sudden
rise in the South African context of a church from an unknown part
of the world, operating in a way that is at once curiously similar and
dissimilar to important actors in the local religious field. As Anderson
says about the AICs:

Many African Christians believe the [missionary] church is not interested in daily
misfortunes, illness, encounter with evil and witchcraft... The need is for a power
beyond that of the spirits, diviners and sorcerers. The alleged syncretism in African
Christianity is not so much a sign of a lack of Christian commitment as an expres-
sion of the fact that Christianity has not been made to respond fully to culturally
based religious aspirations. But in the independent churches, there is an open invi-
tation to bring fears and anxieties about witches, sorcerers, bad luck, poverty and
illness (1990: 67, 71f).

The UCKG does the same, but in a way that is not affirming of African
traditions and which also condemns the 'alleged syncretism in African
Christianity'. But neither is the UCKG in the line of earlier prosper-
ity churches such as Rhema, with its middle-class charismatic charac-
ter influenced by American styles (Corten 2003: 142). It is lower class
and raw, and it arrived in South Africa precisely at the time when the
country's transformation began to make it more similar to Brazil. Some
of the reasons Dozon (2003) adduces for the relative success of the
UCKG in the Ivory Coast seem relevant for the South African case:
they are both countries that combine serious problems with consider-
able urbanization, good infra-structure and a certain cosmopolitanism
and racial diversity. Success in South Africa may also be related to the
moment of the country, in which newly created expectations begin to
be frustrated and new religious groups proliferate. The UCKG can
appeal both to the disappointed as well as to those who need moral
reinforcement to take advantage of the new opportunities.
So far, South Africa is the UCKG's only real success story operat-
ing outside the Portuguese- and Spanish-speaking worlds, and in a coun-
try where Protestantism rather than Catholicism has traditionally been
dominant. Since it originates in a country which has a very different
tradition of race relations, and since many South African churches were,
in the post-apartheid era, struggling to shake off the mentality they had
developed and the reputation they had earned under the old regime,
is it possible that the Universal Church, an authentic representative
of the Brazilian racial melting-pot, was able to fill a vacuum and
even point to a possible new identity? The idea of the UCKG filling a

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The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God 55

vacuum would seem to be plausible, but not that of offering a new

identity. Brazilian racial mingling and inter-marriage are still distant
from the everyday reality of most UCKG members in South Africa.
They would, of course, note that the Brazilian pastors and bishops
might be of any colour; and the church's Brazilian media proudly claims
that 'within the church both white and black pastors are well accepted
by all members', and that 'the church is like a racially neutral space'
(FU 26/7/98). At the church in Pietermaritzburg, frequented by blacks
and occasionally a few poor whites, services are in a mixture of English
and Zulu, but what impresses the blacks is the facility with which the
white Brazilian pastors adapt culturally. 'These whites are blacks', they
say, the implication being that these are Brazilian whites and therefore
different from the ones we have known, whether South African, European
or North American. Even so, the UCKG is forced to admit its failure
to reproduce the Brazilian racial pattern in South Africa: 'it is true that
many whites who came to the church felt out of place and did not
stay, even if they liked the services' (ibid.).

The Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus in Mozambique and Angola

Mozambique, whose religious field has an almost four-way split

between traditional African religions, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism,
is also one of the countries that have received the most Brazilian evan-

gelical missionaries. The UCKG's presence, therefore, is not surpris-

ing. What needs more explaining is the fact that Mozambique is the
country where it has managed most faithfully to reproduce the promi-
nence it enjoys in Brazil in the media and in social projects; and where
even the exercise of some political influence could be on the cards for
the future.

The UCKG, which in the Lusophone countries goes under its orig-
inal name of Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus (IURD), arrived in
Mozambique in 1992, just as the civil war between the Marxist-inclined
Frelimo government and the South African-supported Renamo rebels
was coming to an end. Extremely poor, brutalized by war and over-
whelmingly dependent on foreign aid, not only was Mozambique very
open to external influences but its government was aware of the need
for a more positive relationship with organized religion. But in the new
multiparty context, that relationship could be filtered through compe-
tition between churches, something for which the wealthy and ambi-
tious UCKG might prove useful.
The UCKG, which by 1993 had achieved its legal registration, was

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56 Paul Freston

far from being the only new church. Cruz e Silva (forthcoming) speaks
of a 'religious revitalization', above all evangelical, which included the
arrival of other Brazilian denominations such as God is Love and Brazil

for Christ. But the impact of the Universal was, as usual, far greater.
By 1997 it was in 8 provinces (FU 28/12/97) and by the end of the
1990s it claimed over 30 churches, plus much social work, several radio
stations and a television channel. The locally produced Folha Universal
of 16 May 2001 listed 56 churches, of which 31 were in the province
of Maputo, 13 in Sofala, 4 in Gaza, 2 in Inhambane and one each in
Manica, Tete, Zambezia, Nampula, Niassa and Cabo Delgado. This
represents considerable penetration around greater Maputo and in some
southern zones, with slight growth in the centre and a timid presence
in the more Muslim north. In early 2004, the church claimed to have
93 locations in the country (
In religious terms, many members are said to be former Catholics.
The church began amongst the lower and lower-middle classes, but has
recently gained a few adherents (sometimes, rather shamefaced [Cruz
e Silva 2003:128]) from higher social levels. The Attorney General
has been coming since 2001, when his wife was cured from suicidal

Most UCKG pastors in Mozambique are still Brazilians, including

the bishop. One Saturday afternoon service I attended in Maputo was
packed with about a thousand young people who sang and danced
enthusiastically to the very lively music and then listened very atten-
tively to a sermon on the need to evangelize and to live a righteous
life, preached by a black Brazilian pastor. There is no doubt that the
church's appeal has been greatly enhanced by its Mozambican media,
especially TV Miramar. Through Miramar in Mozambique and through
a channel in Angola, almost the entire content of TV Record in Brazil
has been retransmitted on open television channels to Lusophone south-
ern Africa since 1998 (with a few local programmes and news shows
added). With programmes that are generally regarded as more attrac-
tive than those on the rival (Mozambican or Portuguese) channels, the
impact has been considerable on social mores and has furthered admi-
ration for Brazilian linguistic patterns and culture, especially among
women and urban youth. As in Brazil, the religious programmes (some
locally made) are restricted to late night and early morning hours.
The UCKG's radio and television empire in Mozambique stems from
1994. The church is widely suspected of having made a deal with the
Frelimo government before the first multi-party elections, which allowed

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The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God 57

it to set up its radio and TV stations and rent two floors of the Frelimo
Central Committee building in Maputo. Since the Universal had only
just arrived in Mozambique and could offer few votes to Frelimo, it
would presumably have offered money and future media and electoral
support. The leader of the church in Mozambique at that time, Bishop
Rodrigues, denies that there was any deal with Frelimo. Rather, he
says, 'Frelimo understands that religious freedom is part of democrati-
zation... As they were atheists, they did not discriminate between reli-
gions... We got four [radio and TV] concessions, and the Catholics
also got some... If the government had been Catholic, we would never
have been able to grow there'. In other words, Frelimo wanted the
UCKG as a political counterweight to the Catholic Church within the
religious field. Be that as it may, a few months later (in February 1995)
thirteen new radio stations had been licensed but only three were oper-
ational: one belonging to a businessman from the Frelimo Central
Committee, one belonging to the opposition party Renamo, and the
UCKG's Radio Miramar (www.article19org/docimages/256.htm); a tes-
timony both to the church's ambition and efficiency, and to its political

Not surprisingly, the Catholic Church did not take kindly to the
arrival of this unexpected force and at first spoke out against it. In the
version of Bishop Rodrigues, 'after we had been there about a year...
the Catholic Church began its campaign against us. Since pseudo-
democracy had come... the Catholic Church thought it was time to
get back its properties which had been confiscated by the revolution-
ary government, and to start to dominate the media... But then the
Universal Church arrived and messed their plans up a lot...'
The UCKG did not rely solely on its relations with Frelimo, how-
ever. It also invested heavily in social work, whether motivated by the
dramatic social conditions or by the advisability of deepening its legit-
imacy in the country and broadening its social base (or indeed by both
of these objectives). It created the Associaa;o Beneficente Crista (ABC),
modelled on its identically-named Brazilian organization. Already in
1999, it was mobilizing to succour flood victims and to combat hunger
(FU 26/9/99; 10/10/99). And then, in 2000, came dramatic floods, to
which the ABC responded by mobilizing its members to donate blood
and by calling on its South African church to contribute to a large aid
programme called SOS-Mozambique.
The latter effort was not without controversy, since some of the food
distributed was found to be out-dated (an error on the part of the
donating supermarket in South Africa, the church explained). But other

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58 Paul Freston

controversies have dogged the UCKG in Mozambique. In 2004, the

new municipal council of Maputo suspended work on its new cathedral,
authorized by the previous administration, on the grounds of inadequate
infrastructure in the surrounding residential area. Indeed, bureaucratic
delays in land acquisition and building permission have been one of
the church's main difficulties.

As usual, the UCKG has also been heavily criticized by the more
established evangelical organizations, including the Evangelical Association
of Mozambique, one of whose leaders told me that '90 per cent of the
young people in the UCKG are at odds with their parents, because
the church teaches them to call their parents pagans'. Whatever the
truth of such accusations, the rapid growth of the Universal Church in
a situation of sudden opening-up of the country to pluralism (after
Portuguese colonialism and a Marxist government) has caused concern
to diverse actors in the religious field.
In explaining the success of the UCKG, Mozambican scholars such
as Cruz e Silva (2003) have pointed both to its proximity to popular
beliefs regarding evil, health and blessing (notwithstanding its rejection
of African traditional religion), and to the way its diverse emphases
(family, health, prosperity, deliverance) respond to a society where moral
values have been brutalized. It addresses concrete problems and knows
how to do it using the modern media. But there is also another ele-
ment in the UCKG's success, which is its cultural connection to
Brazilianness, heightened by the way even its Mozambican pastors learn
to speak as if they were from Rio de Janeiro, and above all by its asso-
ciation with TV Record. In Lusophone Africa, the Igrja Universal do
Reino de Deus is a vehicle for Brazilianness (the linguistic characteristics
reminiscent of the television soap-operas; the ways of being and behav-
ing associated with the image of Brazil); and that Brazilianness has in
turn been a vital constituent in the church's rise.

The UCKG remains, of course, a foreign church in Mozambique

and has been suitably circumspect politically. At election times it has
publicly prayed for the government and for President Chissano, but
has avoided a direct endorsement of candidates such as it often prac-
tises in Brazil. In December 1999, Edir Macedo visited the country
and had a meeting with Chissano. Mayoral candidates in Maputo have
courted the church's support and even appropriated its symbol. If the
UCKG's membership continues to grow and its leadership becomes
more Mozambican, then its combination of a mass base, social work,
financial wealth and media power may enable it to become a significant
force in national politics. The political direction of that influence (beyond

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The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God 59

defending its own institutional interests) would be intriguing to see, since

this once fiercely anti-leftist church has (since the mid-1990s) shifted
considerably leftward in the Brazilian context, developing a nationalis-
tic critique of multinationals and the IMF and describing globalization
as 'the fruit of an economic policy dictated by the developed countries
to expand their markets... giving their citizens all the things they
"steal" from ours' (Folha Universal, 17/10/99). By 2000, Bishop Rodrigues,
former founder of the UCKG in Mozambique and by then a con-
gressman in Brazil, was speaking proudly of having 'followed the [Workers
Party] in 90 per cent of votes' so that 'we, of the left' could defeat the
right (Freston 2001a: 57).
In many ways, the UCKG's trajectory in Angola is similar to that
in Mozambique, with the significant difference that the civil war, instead
of being over by the early 1990s, flared up again in 1992 and dragged
on for another ten years. This seems to have had the effect of artificially
constraining the church's expansion like a compressed coil, which, after
the peace, sprang up with even greater force.
As in Mozambique, by the early 1990s there was already a freer
atmosphere for religion, and the UCKG, having arrived in 1991 (its
first destination in Africa), was able to register the following year. And
as in Mozambique, it was just one of a series of Brazilian churches
eager to establish a presence; but also the most successful of them all
(Viegas 1998).
Already in 1994, the church claimed 14 locations (in Luanda, Lobito,
Benguela, Lubango and Namibe) (FU 14/8/94); by 1998, the number
had risen to 36 (FU 13/12/98). In 2000, it was present in 10 of Angola's
18 provinces, although heavily concentrated in Luanda where it had
47 churches and over 15,000 members. Having restricted itself largely
to areas little affected by the war, the peace agreement of 2002 opened
up the possibility of a nation-wide presence. By the following year, the
Universal had a beachhead in all 18 provinces. In 2004, the Angolan
version of the Folha Universal (with a stated circulation of 30,000) was
claiming 124 churches and announcing a new Cathedral of Faith in
Luanda (FU [Angola] 20, 2004).
When the civil war restarted in 1992, Luanda itself was a battle-
ground. The church media talks of Brazilian missionaries killed at this
time, and of the 'Brazilian pastors' wives who were frightened all the
time because of the war' (FU [Angola] 20, 2004). By 1994, there were
20 Brazilians pastors, and the first bishop consecrated in Angola, in
1998, was also a Brazilian (FU 8/3/98). The development of a national
clergy seems to have been much slower than in South Africa, perhaps

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60 Paul Freston

because the Brazilian missionaries did not have linguistic limitations in

the Lusophone sphere. According to Viegas (personal communication,
October 2004), there has lately been much dissension amongst the
UCKG clergy, since the ever-larger number of Angolan pastors feel
marginalized in the structure of the church.
Nevertheless, following the South African example, Angolans have
also been used as UCKG missionaries abroad: the Folha Universal (20,
2004) talks of one of the first members of the church, who now has a
daughter who worked as an 'assistant' (the generally unpaid capacity
below the pastorate which is open to both men and women) in the
tiny UCKG in Israel for two years, and a son who is an assistant in

As in Mozambique, TV Record has been on the air since 1998, but

the church's daily radio programmes have been more effective in reach-
ing the masses. Angola is one of the few contexts where the Universal
Church has operated in wartime, making its traditional methods seem
even more controversial than usual: 'people allege that the country is
at war and in dire poverty, and we ask for offerings' (FU 14/8/94).
But even after the peace, media criticisms of its methods of fund-rais-
ing, healing and exorcism continued. In addition, the church seemed
unusually sensitive regarding its social composition: 'many believe that
the church is a place only for the poor [but] we have noted the con-
stant presence of people from diverse social levels... We have doc-
tors, lawyers, engineers, jurists, sportsmen, officials of the armed forces,
university professors, journalists and singers...' (FU [Angola] 20, 2004).
Unlike in Mozambique, the UCKG was preceded in Angola by the
somewhat similar Mana Church, which was founded by an Angolan-
born Portuguese. The UCKG is said to have recruited many early
members from Mana's ranks. But as almost universally, it has appealed
above all to women, especially those between 30 and 50 years of age
and the victims of marital infidelity. Significantly, the Folha Universal
dedicates considerable attention to women's issues, including equality
in the workplace and 'professional success and personal fulfillment'.

The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in the rest of the region

Although present in every southern African country, the UCKG has

not yet enjoyed notable success in any but the three cases discussed.
It arrived in Zimbabwe in 1995, claiming four churches by 1998 but
complaining of constant immigration problems for its missionaries (FU
6/12/98). By 2003, after years of 'struggles and persecutions', it was

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The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God 61

talking of 18 churches and had a cathedral in Harare in a converted

discotheque (
But these problems were nothing compared to Zambia, where the
government of President Chiluba's 'Christian nation' went so far as to
ban the UCKG. It had arrived in 1995 and (as befits its urban char-
acter) 'quickly spread from Lusaka to towns in "the line of rail" from
Chililabombwe to Livingstone' (Electronic Mail & Guardian 9/9/98). A
former Kaunda-era cabinet minister became a prominent layman in
the church. But in August 1998 it was banned for 'pursuing unlawful
objectives', a reference to accusations of satanism. Former members
alleged that they were required to donate blood for satanic rituals
(an echo of, or perhaps even the origin of, the accusations made at
the South African Council of Churches in 2000). Soldiers invaded the
church and the Brazilian pastors were expelled from Zambia. The
Baptist World Alliance, whose then president was a Brazilian with close
media links with the UCKG, protested against the banning, but promi-
nent Zambian evangelicals such as Bishop John Mambo of the Church
of God approved, saying the laws on registration of churches should
be made tougher and groups like the Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia
should be allowed to scrutinize applications! This is the boldest, but by
no means the only, case of southern African evangelicals appealing for
state intervention in the religious field.
In the end, four months later the Zambian High Court ruled against
the government and the UCKG restarted its activities. By 2003, it only
claimed three locations and 500 members, but it had obviously decided
to try and kick-start the church with an input of money from abroad
and a higher visibility at home. With donations from the UCKG in
other countries, a new Cathedral of Faith for 1,500 people (three times
the current membership) was built on a prime site, despite some dis-
content in the local press at such a venue. The message, according to
the church's own explanation, was 'who says the poor cannot prosper?
The cathedrals... show what is possible when one puts faith in God'
( And in a veiled swipe at the former government of
President Chiluba which had banned it, 'Zambia is considered a Christian
country, but [it is full of] suffering, financial [crises], undernourished
children and street kids, and there is no family planning policy' (www.igre- The UCKG, it should be noted, is well-known for
promoting family planning, and the fertility rate of its Brazilian mem-
bers is significantly lower than the average of their social class.
In Malawi, the UCKG arrived in 1994 and had seven locations by
1999. In Swaziland, as we have seen, the church was once again accused

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62 Paul Freston

of witchcraft, and by 2004, after nine years of operation, there were

only two churches. There is also a presence in Namibia, Botswana
(since 1998, three churches by 1999), Madagascar (since 1997, 5 churches
by 1999 and some media presence) and Lesotho (since 1994, 9 churches
by 2004).

The signficance and future of the UCKG in southern Africa

Globally speaking, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God is

almost exclusively a phenomenon of Christian poverty. Where Christians
are not poor, or the poor are not Christian, it fares badly. In this sense,
its expansion reflects the new global face of Christianity as more and
more a religion of the poor from the global 'South' (and of 'southern'
immigrants in the global 'North').
In the African Christian field specifically, it is interesting to locate
the UCKG across Anderson's (2001) typology of Pentecostal-like phe-
nomena. The AICs, he says, often use symbolic objects such as blessed
water, ropes, staffs or ash (unlike the Pentecostal churches); they are
generally ambivalent to ancestor rituals and some allow polygyny. On
the other hand, the newish African Pentecostal or charismatic denom-
inations such as ZAOGA from Zimbabwe and Deeper Life Bible Church
from Nigeria have a strongly American Pentecostal influence in liturgy
and leadership patterns, sometimes promote American prosperity preach-
ers, have relatively well-educated founders, are more sharply opposed
to traditional practices, and promote individualized urban lifestyles to
escape onerous commitments. The UCKG seems to straddle this
dichotomy. It makes rich use of symbolic objects but is totally opposed
to ancestor rituals and polygyny; it only promotes American prosper-
ity preachers by selling some of their books, but never by any personal
contact; its founders are not very well educated, but they do promote
individualized urban lifestyles. It is thus an unusual mix in the African
field of Pentecostal-like religion, and not only because of its 'exotic'
geographical origin.
In Africa, the UCKG has so far been successful in two areas. Firstly,
in the Lusophone sphere, where its Brazilian cultural and linguistic her-
itage allied to media power give it a considerable advantage. And sec-
ondly, in countries which by African standards are wealthier, more
urbanized and with reasonable infrastructure (South Africa and Ivory
Coast). In the rest of the continent, despite its extensive geographical
spread and occasional public controversy, it has not managed to sep-
arate itself from the pack of smallish newer churches.

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The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God 63

The church itself admits that 'there is still a lot to do. We need to
diminish the distance... between the church and the places where peo-
ple are, dying of hunger and thirst' ( The
UCKG is an essentially urban church, but sub-Saharan Africa is far
less urbanized than most parts of the world where it operates. And in
situations of dire poverty, where movement is not easy, it is necessary
to multiply churches in suburbs and townships. But such a strategy
may not come easily to the Universal Church.
The UCKG's upward trajectory in southern Africa will probably
continue for the foreseeable future, not only in number of churches
and members but also through its ongoing penetration of social insti-
tutions (especially through its media and social work). But much will
also depend on a continuing impetus to geographical expansion from
the Brazilian homeland. Brazilian evangelical religion could have an
important role in the global future of Christianity, since in ethnic, cul-
tural and economic terms it is a bridge between the First and Third
Worlds. However, the Folha Universal comments in 2000 that 'after tak-
ing the gospel to the four corers of the earth, the UCKG has entered
the so-called Era of Cathedrals'. The exhaustive coverage of its inter-
national activities has waned. It is as if the era of reaching the 'ends
of the earth' is now considered closed, and the priority has changed
to deepening the church's visibility and influence in the territories already
'reached'. Cathedrals and missions have often had a tense relationship;
the supreme era of cathedrals, the Middle Ages, was certainly not the
most missionary era of Christianity.
But will the Brazilian centre of the UCKG remain in total control

of the worldwide expansion of the denomination? Is its model of con-

stant switching of pastors (even transnationally) and Brazilian control
of the key posts sustainable in the long run, or will it soon begin to
face the tension between being Brazilian and being truly 'universal'? The
ecclesiastical transplant model, which goes against much moder missions
theory, may run into predictable trouble, even though (or especially
when!) the intention is to nationalize leadership abroad. Bishop Rodrigues
said that 'there are many African leaders, and we are moving in the
direction of the leadership being one day totally African' (FU 26/7/98).
But how will the church reconcile centralized (i.e. Brazilian) global gov-
ernment with national leadership? The uniformity of the UCKG far
exceeds that of the Roman Catholic Church, and thus the problem of
'contextualization' or 'indigenization' will be even greater. If in Brazil
the UCKG reacts to accusations of 'syncretism' by saying that it is
evangelical but not in a European or North American way, but using

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64 Paul Freston

Brazilian popular religiosity as its starting-point, it will have to admit

the right of its future national leaderships in other countries to do the
same. And they may, with time, come to question the judgments of
the Brazilian hierarchy on the phenomena of their own cultures, espe-
cially as most Brazilian Universal missionaries lack the educational and
linguistic competence (and do not usually stay long enough in one place)
for a deeper engagement with local realities. South Africa, with its large
national clergy stimulated by the church's unprecedented success out-
side the Lusophone and Hispanophone worlds, may reach this stage
before anywhere else; and the result may be a fascinating process of
partial South Africanization of the UCKG, there and elsewhere in


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