The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God and Portuguese Media [1]


Miguel H. Farias [2], Researcher at the University of Lisbon, Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences
(A paper presented at CESNUR 99 conference, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. Preliminary version.© Miguel H. Farias, 1999. Do not reproduce without the consent of the author)


The characterisation of European governments, media and popular reactions to New Religious Movements (NRMs) is certainly much more complex and fragmented than that of the USA. The conflicting major interpretations on the nature and actions of NRMs -- between anti-sect ideology and the reasoning of scholars -- have been a matter of enthusiastic discussion in some European countries. Although the case of France has attracted much attention, mainly due to its clearly aggressive policies against NRMs, all European countries have met with the emergence and growth of NRMs. In countries, such as Portugal, where there have been no parliamentary reports on NRMs, no anti-sects associations created and the academic studies on the subject are scarce or almost non-existent, the action of the Media is of primal importance on the construction of an image and an attitude towards these movements. The fact that the majority of them are of foreign origin, and sometimes bear little resemblance to the historical implemented religions, is paramount to the understanding of the cultural clash that may emerge with the local population. Thus, taking into account that the identity of a people and a country -- even or especially in times of galloping globalisation -- necessarily conditions its reactions to growing and proselytising NRMs, it will be presented a preliminary framing of the Portuguese identity. As will later be discussed, this framework will allow us to put forward the hypothesis that the popular reactions that took place against the religious movement Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG), beginning in August 1995, were mainly the product of a clearly negative image depicted by the Media for the last 5 years, incremented, at that particular time, by the enthusiastic appeal of individualities from all cultural sectors and the UCKG’s counter-offensive.



Fernado Pessoa, this century’s most translated of Portuguese poets, wrote in 1923 that "The Portuguese people is essentially cosmopolite. Never a Portuguese has been Portuguese, it has always been everything. Now, being everything individually is everything; being everything collectively is for an individual to be nothing". Sociologist Boaventura Sousa Santos (1994) quotes this idea as the borderline cultural archetype which is characteristic of the Portuguese people. In one of his works, Santos (1994: 132) puts forth the hypothesis that the Portuguese culture has only form but no content and that form is that of a borderline zone. As the Portuguese State was never able to perform the differentiation of the national culture facing the exterior, neither of promoting a cultural homogeneity inside the territory, the result is a strong internal heterogeneity and a great difficulty of differentiation from other national cultures (Santos, 1994:133). This has led to a "certain freedom of cultural frontiers, a certain promiscuity between the Self and the Other and the absence of feelings of superiority which generally characterise western civilisation" (Saraiva, 1985:103). Possessing such a borderline identity, the possibilities of identification and cultural creation are very rich but equally superficial, as also happens with the Brazilian well-known syncretism of all kinds.

Regarding religion, when compared to neighbour Spain, Portugal shows obvious differences. The religious figures and sentiments, within Catholicism, which arose in Portugal do not possess that ecstatic and fierce attitude that we find in mystics like S. John of the Cross or St Theresa of Avila, being Portuguese spirituality of a much more lyrical nature (Silva, 1986). Many authors who have written on Portuguese identity and religion like to point out the popular Cult of the Holy Spirit, dating back to the 16th century and still existing in the Azores and in Brazil, in which the leading figure is a child, crowned as the Emperor of the Holy Spirit [3], and at the time of which festivities prisoners were set loose from jail, as particularly revealing of the Portuguese temperament.



After the April 1974 peaceful revolution, which led to the end of a 5 decades dictatorship, the frontiers were open to any religious movement from abroad. With an overwhelming catholic population, Portugal did not participate in the Protestant Reformation, and the few protestant churches, for some time, were looked upon with the same kind of suspicion as other movements like the Free Masonry. The Catholic Church, albeit meeting the problems deriving from secularisation, still holds the moral prestige, legislative privileges, which no other church has. Also, the Catholic University has held, until very recently, the only degree in Religious Studies and some of its teaching staff (sociologists and theologians) are active media insiders, when NRMs’ experts are called upon.

Some of the most publicised non-Christian NRMs have been from 1974: Transcendental Meditation, New Acropolis, Unification Church and Scientology. The New Age movement is well implemented but curiously, as the term itself has not been widespread either in the English original form or in a Portuguese translation (as has happened in Brazil), only a few people belonging to the myriad of the New Age philosophy would see themselves as such, or even, be acquainted with its internationalised meaning. Some schools of Buddhism have also established themselves and have enjoyed a more favourable attitude from the Media than most of the NRMs, which certainly has to do with the actual promotion of Buddhism as a philosophy and not a religion, its praise by intellectuals, as well as the modern and tolerant discourse of the Dalai-Lama. [4]

The Christian non-Pentecostal NRMs with more visibility are the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is in fact a NRM in Portugal having arrived only in the 80’s [5] but the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been acting in Portugal since the 20’s and were persecuted by the fascist regime, which did not allow any private gatherings for religious purposes. Under this rule spiritualists, theosophists and masons, among others, had their share of persecution. Nowadays, Jehovah’s Witnesses have one of the largest non-Catholic Christian communities, but are still looked upon as a cult.

The NRMs who have attracted by large, in the past decade, the public’s attention are the Pentecostal churches Manna Church, created by a Portuguese living in South Africa and the Brazilian Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. In 10 years time, each one was able to attract between 50.000 to 100.000 thousand regular and non-regular attendants, which is very significant for a national population of 10 millions.



This religious movement was created in Brazil in 1977, by Edir Macedo, who has been living in the USA since 1986. It was founded in a room of a Funerary House and in 1998 had about 25 000 temples in 60 countries, including the USA, Canada, United Kingdom and Japan. In Brazil, it possesses several radio and TV stations and has been able to elect members as federal deputies (Freston,1994). As a Pentecostal church they have shown a particular aggressive style towards other religions and churches, namely the Afro-Brazilian Umbanda and Candomblé (Soares, 1989) -- which they consider diabolic or satanic -- and the Catholic church. Regarding the latter, the founder has stated that Brazil’s "problem is the Catholic Church. They’re responsible for all the misery and disgrace of Brazil and the rest of the world. (...) Everything it teaches is against the people" (Veja, 6/12/1995).

Their sessions are very energetic and enthusiastic, with loud music and singing, intense continuous preaching by several pastors, replacing each other during the session so as to keep the intensity to its highest level. The most participated celebrations are the ones on Liberation, which include the exorcism of evil-spirits. They tithe their members and usually, in every session, invite people to donate, following the general Christian principle that you must give in order to receive. They adopt the tenets of what has been called the Theology of Prosperity, in which poverty is regarded as unnecessary and even sinful for we live to be happy and joyful and reshape Jesus’ traditional image from a poor man to that of a King. Other major aspect is the healing and miraculous cures, which often happen in their celebrations. Such miracles are often publicised as legitimising their role as Christ’s genuine followers and leads them to moderately reject medical assistance. These latter aspects are emphasised by the 1995 French Parliamentary Report on cults, in which the UCKG is primarily classified as a healing cult.

The UCKG also shows up in the 1997 Belgian Parliamentary Enquiry on sects, as one of 37 movements, among 189, which was considered problematic. The summary of the activities of this church in the report is very close to the image Portuguese Media have given of it:

Elle prétend que le règne de Dieu est ici-bas et qu’elle peut offrir une solution à tous les maux possibles, la dpréssion, le chômage et les problèmes familiaux et financiers. En fait, il s’agit apparement d’une véritable association criminelle, dont, le seul but esl l’enrichissement. [6]



The Portuguese Media are the most influential opinion maker regarding NRMs. The void left by the lack of scholar or non-scholar books, the non-existence of study centres and anti-sect associations make the Media the almost exclusive opinion maker on NRMs.

By 1992, newspapers [7] started doing report pieces on the UCKG, focusing on two main aspects:

  1. The ritual: the spectacle and hysteria of their celebrations, which include exorcisms and miracles;
  2. Their income and prosperity, including the tithe and the characterisation of their members as belonging to a lower and less literate class. Many transcriptions from the celebrating pastors’ speeches focused on the suggestion of donating to the Church: If you can offer a thousand, do not offer 500 hundred; if you can offer 5000 don’t offer a 1000; if you can offer 10.000 do not offer 5.000. Give what you can! In the name of God! Sacrifice yourself! (Independente, 13.11.92) .

Generally, the kind of analysis done by journalists follows a search for exotic elements, and the sought balance is that between the seemingly ridicule behaviours of converted people and the threat the movement may represent to them. Thus, most of its rationale is close to the rationalistic arguments of anti-sect ideology (Bromley & Shupe, 1995). Even theologians, commenting on this movement will more likely focus on the issue of emotional manipulation and extortion than on its theological misinterpretations. There are, on the other hand, very few articles showing more neutral or even favourable comments, but even these try to reduce the religious aspects of the group to secular interpretations. [8]



It will be presented, in a rather succinct and anecdotal form, the major events of this church’s history in Portugal, highlighting its most important episode: the attempt the UCKG made to buy Oporto’s Coliseum -- the city’s largest traditional and popular entertainment venue -- which captured the spotlights of the media and turned into a matter of national importance and controversy. The popular actions that followed in the area of Oporto, along with the almost unanimous negative impression of the UCKG’s profile, built into the most acute episode of religious related violence in the contemporary History of Portugal.





1 August -- The UCKG signs the provisory contract of purchase for the Coliseum of Oporto, the largest theatre in that city built in 1941.

2 August -- The UCKG announces the opening ceremony for next Saturday, the 5th. Oporto’s City Hall and the State’s Secretary of Culture claim that they will do everything in their power to prevent Saturday’s ceremony and the purchase of the Coliseum by the UCKG.

-- The UCKG made an appeal for a large concentration of members for the 5th in the name of faith and for religious freedom. In their radio stations this appeal was accompanied by the singing phrase: Because victory belongs to God’s people. One of their pastors stated: even if the whole world stands up against us, we will do everything to keep that house which already is ours (...) We’ll be armed with the bible, which is our shield (Semanário, 5.8.95).

4 August -- The State’s Secretary of Culture forbids the ceremony as well, alleging that the Coliseum serves for cultural and not religious events.

-- A demonstration in front of the Coliseum, organised by City Hall, which gathered several individualities (musicians, artists, architects, etc.) from Oporto. The written declaration of the just-born Movement in Defence of the Oporto’s Coliseum is signed by more than 80 associations and individualities and starts by saying: We, citizens of Oporto, wish to make public our indignation for the announced death of the Coliseum (Público, 4.8.95).

5 August -- A large demonstration with the population of Oporto and several individualities. One well-known pop artist chains himself to the doors of the Coliseum claiming to be a symbolic gesture: I propose a peaceful occupation of the Coliseum (Semanário, 5.8.95).

-- Some Brazilian journalists, reporting the demonstration, have to be rescued by the police, as they are mistook for members of the UCKG.

-- The UCKG’s concentration never happens. The buses coming from Lisbon with members never leave for fear of incidents.

8 August -- The owner of the Coliseum, the UAP Aliance, an insurance company, issues a communication in which it explains that the Coliseum has not been sold yet; there is only a provisory contract. Furthermore, it declares that it is open to other negotiations with the City Hall and other entities, especially those to whom it concerns the defence of national cultural values (Público, 8.8.98).

17 August -- The Society of Oporto’s Coliseum is created. Several ways of raising money to purchase the Coliseum are planned, including concerts.







It is proposed that there were 3 consummating agents to the events regarding the siege of the Coliseum: The media were the primal agent, by feeding the public an image of the UCKG as an institution more similar to a criminal association than to a religion; secondly, the statements and presence of individualities from across the whole spectrum of the cultural arena, joined by the City Hall’s political power which made the first public demonstration materially possible; thirdly, the non-diplomatic action of the UCKG near the public by treating the subject as a sort of holy war, of which they would not easily give up.

On a different stance, Ruuth and Rodrigues (1999) suggest that the main reason for these incidents in the zone of Oporto has to do with fact that, due to historical reasons, this is the most conservative and Catholic area of Portugal. Although such argument holds a certain common sense appeal -- even for its implicit idea that there is a more substantial identity in the people of the north of Portugal --no research has been done so far to justify it. Furthermore, this is the kind of hypothesis, which favours an image of the population as freely choosing their actions, regardless of the influence of the media and other opinion makers.

Finally, do these incidents regarding the UCKG make us question the initial characterisation of the idiosyncrasies of the Portuguese people, as hypothesised by sociologist Sousa Santos? Is this case the contrary proof that there is not a weak but a solid homogeneous identity, which was made manifest by the purchase of a major Theatre by a foreign NRM? In an article from an Oporto’s dailiy newspaper [9], referring to these events, it’s expressed pride in the idea of such an identity:

...Catholics and atheists, believers and agnostics joined hands in a fight against the profanation of a consecrated temple of culture. It was a popular upheaval against the hierarchy of the self-called "church" and, also, against the fanaticism of legions of believers...

And it is further added:

And when the Bishop (of the UCKG) Marcelo Breyner, talking about he incidents in Matosinhos says that "that’s good for the world to see what’s Portugal like", we always feel like saying "Amen!". .. in fact, it is good that the World can realise that this corner of Europe is not a "banana republic".

It doesn’t take a very thorough analysis to sort out the ambiguity between the factual text and the attitude of its author. In fact, such pieces in Portuguese newspapers can be found, going back at least a century, and are very similar in the way that they mean the exact opposite of what they’re trying to express: i.e., a true weakness of identity and a certain feeling of inferiority towards Europe, trying to transfigure itself into a false strength of character. But it cannot be overlooked the clearly intolerant type of speech, assuming a pseudo-defence of rationalistic values and cultural heritage.

As a final note regarding the Portuguese general attitude towards NRMs, it is still necessary to highlight that the praise of religious freedom and tolerance can be no match for the current state of misinformation regarding an NRM such as the UCKG. Mass media information is biased by nature, and the presently required effort for most scholars is to work toward the achievement of a more balanced image of NRMs.



BROMLEY, David G. & Shupe, Anson (1995) "Anti-cultism in the United States: Origins, Ideology and Organizational Development", Social Compass 42(2), 221-236.

LUSITANO, Patrício & FROILAZ, Pantaleão (1879) Maria Coroada ou o Scisma da Granja do Tedo. Verdadeira História da Mulher-Homem ou Homem-Mulher Antonio Custodio das Neves ou Antonia Custodia das Neves. Porto.

FRESTON, Paul (1994) "Popular Protestants in Brazilian Politics: A Novel Turn in Sect-State Relations", Social Compass 41(4), 537-570.

RUUTH, Anders & RODRIGUES, Donizete (1999) Deus o Demónio e o Homem. O Fenómeno Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus. Edições Colibri: Lisboa.

SANTOS, Boaventura de Sousa (1994) Pela Mão de Alice. O Social e o Político na Pós-Modernidade. Biblioteca das Ciências do Homem, Edições Afrontamento: Porto.

SARAIVA, António José (1985) A cultura em Portugal. Bertrand: Lisboa.

SILVA, Carlos H. C. (1986) Experiência Orante em Santa Teresa de Jesus. Edições Didaskalia: Lisboa.


1. Paper presented at the CESNUR’s 13th Conference, at the Bryn Athyn College. The author wishes to thank: the Portuguese-American Foundation for Development for the attributed travel grant; Claudia Coelho and Tiago Santos for the helpful comments on previous versions of this paper.

2. Comments and correspondence can be sent to

3. Some authors claim that this cult of the Holy Spirit is related to the belief in the coming of a Golden Era, the Age of the Holy Spirit, following the system designed by the 12th century monk Joachim de Fiore.

4. Eduardo Lourenço, a notable Portuguese author living in France, has stated in a somewhat humorous note, that when people today in France use the title ‘His Holiness’, they’re not referring to the Pope but to the Dalai Lama.

5. Although not possessing any historical references regarding previous attempts of establishment, we came across a reference to the Mormons, in what could be roughly called an anti-sect book from 1879, published in Oporto. The authors of the book, talking about the origins of a Portuguese sect say: (...) a manuscript, in which could be read the most absurd statements of a sect somewhat similar to the Mormons, but even more stupid and immoral. (Lusitano & Froilaz, 1879).

6. Our translation: It pretends that the Kingdom of God is down here and that it can offer a solution to every possible problem, depression, unemployment, family and financial problems. In fact, it apparently seems to be a truly criminal association, whose only purpose is enriching.

7. Our analysis will focus upon the printed and not the electronic media. Selected pieces from 1992 to 1999 of the following daily and weekly Portuguese newspapers were consulted: Expresso, Independente, Visão, Público, Diário de Notícias, Jornal de Notícias, Correio da Manhã, Capital and Tal & Qual.

8. One interesting example is that of sociologist Moisés Espírito Santo who explained to the Media that the celebrations of the UCKG were a harmless kind of group therapy.

9. Jornal de Notícias, "Temas Especiais: Viagem pelo reino da crendice profunda",, 30/5/99.

[Home Page] [Cos'è il CESNUR] [Biblioteca del CESNUR] [Testi e documenti] [Libri] [Convegni]

[Home Page] [About CESNUR] [CESNUR Library] [Texts & Documents] [Book Reviews] [Conferences]