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Religion Defies Recession in Brazil

06/24/2015 - 11h28

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SAMANTHA PEARSON
FROM "THE FINANCIAL TIMES"

At Solomon's Temple in São Paulo, a vast $300m replica of the biblical temple built by Brazil's Universal Church, the message is clear: salvation can - and should - be bought.

One Monday afternoon, during the evangelical church's weekly "Success Congress", a local businessman is summoned to the temple's gold-plated altar to explain how his life suddenly changed after making his first contribution.

"I was living in my father's basement," he says, his image beamed out on giant plasma screens to the transfixed congregation of nearly 10,000 followers. "Now I own a beautiful house, a fast-food chain, an insurance brokerage and I bought the car of my dreams!"

He is joined by an aspiring actress who has just landed a role in a prime time soap opera and a hairdresser whose business is now doing so well that she is also opening a lingerie store.

"Honour our faith, Lord!" the bishop bellows out, as women with empty red velvet sacks and suited men with credit card machines line up next to him, ready to accept this week's takings.

The growing popularity of Brazil's evangelical churches, such as Universal, which was founded by billionaire Edir Macedo in 1977 and is now present in more countries than any Brazilian company, has helped turn religion into one of the country's best businesses.

The latest data from Brazil's tax authorities shows its churches made about R$21bn ($6.8bn) in revenue in 2011 through weekly contributions, donations and by even issuing credit cards with local banks.

While Brazil is still home to the world's largest Catholic population, evangelicals now account for about a quarter of the population and are expected to outnumber Catholics by 2040, according to studies by the country's statistics agency and Euromonitor.

However, the "evangelisation" of Brazil has not only swollen the budgets of churches but also driven the growth of Brazil's market for religious goods and services.

Even as the country faces its deepest recession in a quarter of a century, the so-called "faith market" is expected to more than double to R$25bn ($8.1bn) in 2015 from R$12bn ($3.8bn) in 2012, according to São Paulo's ESPM University.

"Up until now, the economic crisis has had little impact, not least because when people are made redundant or go through a moment of difficulty they look to religion for comfort," says Andrey Mendonça, professor at ESPM.

A 20-minute drive from Solomon's Temple along Count Sarzedas Road - home to evangelical stores selling anything from underwater bibles to Christian video games - many shopkeepers say sales have continued to grow.

"People seem to buy these envelopes no matter what," says Fernanda, who sells pouches for evangelical church contributions with inscriptions such as "Urgent Miracle!". Next door, a shop selling gold-plated earrings in the form of Jesus is advertising for new staff.

In contrast to traditional Christian teachings that extol poverty as a virtue, Brazil's evangelical churches - especially those belonging to neo-Pentecostal movements such as Universal - have promoted consumerism and material wealth as a sign of the grace of God.

This controversial prosperity theology has won particular favour with Brazil's new middle class, which has grown by 40m people since 2003 and whose members largely measure their social ascension through ability to consume.

Brought to Brazil by missionaries in the early 20th century, Pentecostalism and its variants have also found favour with the very poor, says Ricardo Mariano, professor at the University of São Paulo (USP).

The promise of supernatural solutions to everyday problems has been particularly attractive in Brazil, where many find themselves at the mercy of a dire public health system. "[Wealthier Brazilians] can solve their problems via more secular means such as going to a psychologist or using their medical insurance," he says.

The rise of evangelism has not only boosted existing religious industries but also created new ones, says ESPM's Prof Mendonça, noting a rise for example in the number of sex shops catering to evangelicals.

"Instead of going to the store, a consultant will come to you and present a series of products to improve your marriage," he says. For the single, there are evangelical dating sites such as Gospel Encounters, Perfect Pair and Divine Love.

However, by far the biggest industry driving Brazil's faith market is tourism, says Prof Mendonça.

According to Euromonitor, Brazil's Sanctuary of Our Lady of Aparecida in São Paulo state - one of Latin America's most popular pilgrimage sites among Catholics - attracted 12m visitors last year, almost twice the number of visitors to France's Eiffel Tower in 2013.

While much of the industry is still geared towards Catholics, companies such as Gospel Cruises have also started to offer cruises along Brazil's coastline with on-board sermons for evangelicals.

Meanwhile, global music companies have invested heavily in Brazilian gospel music, which now ranks as the country's most popular segment after sertanejo, or Brazilian country music.

Universal Music, which set up its Universal Christian Music Group division in Brazil in 2013, estimates the local gospel music market is growing at 15 per cent a year.

However, while Brazil's census data show that adherence to evangelical churches has generally increased during periods of economic hardship, it is too early to tell whether this religious spending spree will be immune to the effects of rising unemployment, says USP's Prof Mariano.

Erní Seibert at Brazil's Bible Society (SBB), one of the country's largest bible publishers, says the number it distributed last year fell 4 per cent since 2013 to 7.6m, adding that demand is already growing for cheaper versions of the text.

"The economic crisis will always hit the poorest the hardest . . . on some occasions they will have to make the choice between buying a bible and putting food on their table."

However, at Solomon's Temple, whose immaculate columns tower above São Paulo's grotty Brás neighbourhood with a surreal splendour, Brazil's impending recession is apparently nothing that some positive thinking and generous contributions cannot fix.

"What is the most valuable banknote in Brazil?" the bishop later shouts to those attending the Success Congress, prompting ecstatic followers to wave Brazil's blue R$100 note in the air.

"Yes, R$100! That is how much I want you to bring next time and for thosewho really can't, don't be embarrassed," he says. "We'll pray that you will be able to soon!"

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015

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