Brazilian journalist Elvira Lobato and the newspaper for which she works, Folha de S. Paulo, the largest daily in Brazil, are the target of at least 28 lawsuits filed by 28 members of the Brazilian-founded and based Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus (Universal Church of the Kingdom of God).
The authors of the lawsuits say they were insulted by her investigative report, entitled "Universal turns 30 with a business empire", published on December 15, 2007. It's possible that more lawsuits will still be filed of which the journalist and the newspaper have not yet been informed by the justice system.
Lobato's report investigated the assets amassed by the church over the previous 30 years and revealed the way these properties are managed between the bishops.
The lawsuits, filed in cities in seven separate states, are almost identical, according to Taםs Gasparian, lawyer for Folha de S. Paulo. "The texts are 90% percent," she said.
Aside from citing the same biblical passages in their lawsuits, the Universal Church members all claim to have suffered harassment on the street following the article. Gasparian says "it's curious that the lawsuits' descriptions of the harassment are the same, whether the people are from Paraםba or Rio Grande do Sul." Paraםba and Rio Grande do Sul are states located at opposite ends of the country.
According to Gasparian, the newspaper report didn't mention by name any of the church members who are suing the journalist and the newspaper. "It seems that there is an arrangement. It seems that the lawsuit is intended to inhibit the press and the journalist. You can imagine how difficult it is for a journalist to defend herself in lawsuits across such a large country."
Brazzil Magazine in a cover story on the Universal Church on November 1995 - (press here for article) - headlined: "Praise the Lord and Pass the Catchup" wrote: The founder of the church, Edir Macedo, often referred as Bishop Macedo was 20, when disenchanted with the Catholic Church he became an evangelical, joining the Igreja Nova Vida (New Life Church).
He would stay 10 years with the congregation before leaving it in 1975, accusing the church of elitism. In Casa da Bךnחדo (Blessed House), the new church he had joined, the restless maverick was advised to start his own religious movement.
So, Macedo and a small group of friends created the Cruzada do Caminho Eterno (The Eternal Road Crusade), an aggressive bunch of people brandishing bibles on public squares and preaching in rented movie theaters. Once again he didn't agree with what was being done and started his Igreja Universal.
For many years nobody besides his followers was paying any attention to this evangelical minister. To the dominant Catholic church and the complacent Brazilian media he seemed just like one more fanatic among hundreds who profited from the public ignorance, poverty and suffering to start a new sect and make some money for themselves in the process.
He put some fear in the hearts and pockets of the establishment", however, when he started buying radio stations, theaters and supermarkets to put them in the service of his church. The acquisition of TV Record network in 1990 was a watershed showing he was serious about getting bigger and more legitimate.
The Igreja Universal has also made serious incursions into the middle class, recruiting doctors, economists, lawyers and business owners. This made life much harder for Macedo, the minister who had by now given himself the title of bishop.
Where had his money come from? The media started to ask questions. The police got involved. He was accused of fraud and embezzlement, and in 1992 ended up in jail for 12 days. The courts have found him innocent every time there was a process against him.