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."

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