Brazilian Evangelical Has A Grandiose, Jewish Path For Salvation

The Universal Church before its opening in Sao Paulo, on July 31, 2014.
The Universal Church before its opening in Sao Paulo, on July 31, 2014.
Keren Tsuriel-Harari

SAO PAULO – Nearly 3,000 years after King Solomon built the first Holy Temple in Jerusalem, Bishop Edir Macedo has inaugurated his own replica in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Drawing on Biblical depictions of the temple and archaeological findings, an extraordinarily elaborate shrine has come to life. It's $300 million, a 74,000-square-meter building on 40 plots of land that were converted into a single bloc. It took four years of planning and building, and 1,800 workers. The structure includes classes for 1,300 children, chairs imported from Spain, Jerusalemite stones from Hebron, television and radio studios, a helicopter landing pad, candelabra and prayer shawls from Israel, marble from Italy, 10,000 LED bulbs, two giant screens, an American management company to oversee the premises, a parking lot for nearly 2,000 cars, and, yes, one God.

The inauguration ceremony of the new Solomon's Temple was held on the last day of July in the presence of thousands, including Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, local officials and members of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG).

A band was playing and a choir was singing praise to the Lord. Bishops and priests in white gowns with golden sashes were walking on the red carpet carrying an Ark of the Convenant. A presentation screened on the stone walls described the history of the believer — from Abraham to UCKG, of course.

And then Bishop Edir Macedo, founder of the church and this temple, took the stage wearing a dark yarmulke and an embroidered shawl, still wearing the long beard he vowed to shave only once the project was complete.

At 126 meters long, 104 meters wide and 55 meters high, this mega shrine is thought to be the biggest in Brazil, and one of the largest in the world. So if Rio de Janeiro is known for the statue of Christ the Redeemer, Sao Paulo could soon be known for Solomon's Temple.

And that's quite an achievement for a rather young evangelical movement that started no more than 37 years ago in a makeshift shed in a Sao Paulo suburb, advanced to a little morgue and today numbers at least 10 million followers in various countries, including two communities in Israel.

Bond between Judaism and Christianity

Macedo, 69, was born and brought up Catholic, but at the age of 25 he became an evangelist. He had studied theology in religious academic institutes until he became so passionate about spreading the word of God that in 1977 he abandoned his career as an economist at a public institute and started the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God with several partners.

They believe in the old and new testaments, and that each Christian is first and foremost Jewish. This is the root of the deep connection to Judaism and Israel. At the UCKG, many prayers are in three languages — Portuguese, English and Hebrew — and prayer halls are decorated with a range of Jewish symbols. During this summer's conflict in Gaza, a mass prayer for Israel was held at the Solomon's Temple.

Macedo rarely gives interviews, but in response to a request from Calcalist, he answered a few questions in writing, stressing the strong bond between Judaism and Christianity.

"The biblical faith is one," he explains. "It is impossible to separate Christianity from its Jewish roots. Jesus and his Twelve Apostles were Jewish, and he didn't ignore the principles of the Jewish faith. On the contrary, he enhanced and completed what Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had started. Psalm 122:6 says we need to pray for Jerusalem and we do it all the time, in our rituals and in our radio programs."

Macedo made the decision to build a replica of the Holy Temple eight years ago, when he visited Jerusalem. He wanted all members of his church to be able to step at least once in their lifetimes on the same ground and stones that Jesus walked on.

"The Solomon's Temple is a way to reconstruct the Biblical principles of faith as God himself meant," Macedo explains. "This is not a temple of the Universal Church, but a universal temple — for all humanity, of every race and faith, for anyone who wishes to know the God of the Bible."

He teaches his followers the theology of prosperity — a Christian doctrine, according to which the Bible contains a contract that stipulates that if people believe in God he will uphold the commitment to provide them with security and prosperity.

Wealth a double-edged sword

For Brazil's new middle class the church offers a way to extend their thanks for the economic growth they've enjoyed in recent years. Many people make donations, and the church expands in a way that allows it to also work with the poor and others facing hardship.

But wealth can also be a source of trouble. The new, rebellious evangelical movement, which also has been growing rapidly on social media, has already been drawing fire from other Christian sects. The church and its leaders have been blamed for allegedly using donations and charity funds for personal interests, and several legal cases are ongoing.

Meanwhile, Forbes has ranked Macedo 55th on a list of Brazil's wealthiest people, with assets of $1.4 billion. According to the magazine, his primary interests are Rede Record, the country's second biggest media company, and half of Banco Renner. He also has real estate, a private jet and revenues from the 10 million copies of the 34 books he has published.

"I'm not the richest pastor in Brazil. I'm the richest pastor in the world," he said sarcastically a few years ago.

Universal in Israel

One of the two Universal communities in Israel is based in Jaffa. Bishop Aroldo Martinez lifts a loud iron door leading to a space that looks like a hybrid between a small neighborhood synagogue and a Judaica souvenir shop. In the main room are upholstered maroon benches and a lectern decorated with a Menorah, a stage with two pillars and an altar. By the entrance, a glass closet contains Judaica artifacts such as candles and small tablets.

Martinez, a tall warm man with a charming smile joined the UCKG in the 1980s. Today, at 53, he is a bishop, a traveling missionary who has lived in more than seven countries around the world. He is now heading the 80-strong Universal community in Jaffa and Haifa.

"We are a messianic community of non-Jewish Christians and Jews who believe in Christ," he says. "So we have no plan to compete with the rebuilding of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem from the Jewish perspective of the coming of the Messiah. We don't intend to claim this is the new Holy Temple."

Martinez says the church teaches people around the world to love Israel and the Jewish faith, and the massive replica back in Sao Paulo will help toward that end. "We bring many pilgrims to Israel," he says. "What better way for preserving the values of God than building a temple according to the Solomonic architecture? It was the first, the biggest and the most beautiful of all."

As for the criticism regarding the wealth of both the church and Macedo, Martinez offers a surprising explanation. "He has nothing, like all of us. He doesn't have a thing. The TV station bears his name, but he doesn't own it," he claims. "His children will not inherit it because it belongs to the church."

He estimates that UCKG has several hundred bishops and more than 50,000 priests. "We have no personal assets to our name. We live for God's mission, and this is the meaning of the UCKG, of Bishop Macedo and the Solomon's Temple," he says. "The temple was built to worship the God of Israel. God doesn't want a man-made temple, but people need it."

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!