Tiago Santos, (Email:
(A paper presented at CESNUR 99 conference, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. Preliminary version.© Tiago Santos, 1999. Do not reproduce without the consent of the author)

Introduction: A crash course on Portugal.

Portugal is the westernmost country of continental Europe; its independence was proclaimed in 1139 in the context of a holy war through which the Christians wrestled control of the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslims who had kept it since 711. The Algarve, the southernmost part of the current territory, was conquered in 1249, but the expansion was to continue in the following centuries by sea. An empire was thus formed in an impetus that merged economy, religion and politics. The Inquisition was established in 1536 and remained active until 1821, when it was abolished in result of the liberal revolution of 1820. The estimates of the number of victims vary widely but Professor Mattoso, one of our greatest historians and once keeper of the national archive, stated it to hold register of 40.000 inquisitorial processes (Mattoso in Serrão (ed.): 1992: under the heading Santo Ofício).

The Republic was proclaimed in 1910 only to be subdued a few years later, in 1926, by an authoritarian regime that lasted through most of the century until the 1974, when a military insurgence led to the establishment of a democracy. The authoritarian regime of Salazar lived in symbiosis with the Catholic Church, as is manifest from the many privileges granted by the state to this confession through the concordat with the Holy See, which was signed in 1940. During this regime, some non Catholic confessions, among which the Jehovah’s Witnesses, were persecuted by the secret police; this subject has resurfaced recently in newspaper articles but received, as of yet, no academic attention.

Following the implementation of democracy in 1974, Portugal abandoned its isolationist policy, expressed in the slogan "Proudly Alone", and applied for membership of the European Union, a situation which came about in 1985. The most recent census dates from 1991 and shows a population of 9.862.540; more recent estimates indicate that population should be well above 10.000.000.

Table 1: Religious affiliation in Portugal according to a 1997 national survey
Valid Percent
Valid Catholic
No Religion
Other Christian
Other Non Christian
Missing Doesn’t Know
Doesn’t Answer
Source: As Atitudes Sociais dos Portugueses, 1997

As for the population’s religious affiliations, a 1997 national survey indicates that a vast majority of 89,9 percent claims to be Catholic, while atheists and agnostics come second, summing 6,4 percent of answers, and other Christians, but not Protestants, come third with 2,1 percent.

The social problem of NRMs

In Portugal, the social problem of NRMs is currently built mostly around two Neo-Pentecostal churches: the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG) and the Manna Church. These two churches have in recent years displaced the Jehovah’s Witnesses from the spotlights of the media and collected most of the animosity of both public and press.

The UCKG was founded in Brazil by Edir Bezerra de Macedo, a former public officer, in the year of 1977. In the following years it was to grow exponentially; no one knows exactly how much but some estimates point towards 3.000.000 believers and 2.500 temples in 1997 (Ruuth et al., 1999: 34). Also according to Ruuth and Rodrigues, its key features are a theology inspired in Pentecostalism and an hierarchical organization similar to that of the Catholic Church (1999: 130).

The UCKG came to Portugal in 1989 and there too it thrived. Its strategy for expansion and conversion lies heavily on an extensive use of the mass media and its hard acquisition policy was to grant it many enemies in that field. This church buys old romantic cinemas and changes them into temples, acquires financially debilitated local radios to spread the good news and, until it was judicially stopped in an action that casts the shadow of a doubt on the impartiality of the state, rented publicity time from a national TV network. The yellow pages list 17 different locations for this church in Portugal, the majority of which in the metropolitan area of Lisbon. This number seem disproportionate to the attention the church gets form the media but we have no alternative figure to propose, since the Ministry of Justice’s list of non Catholic religious associations only holds register for its headquarters.

The Manna Church was founded by the Engineer Jorge Tadeu, a former Portuguese emigrant in South Africa. The first register of a temple of this church that shows up on the Ministry of Justice’s list of non Catholic religious associations dates from 1986. Though the yellow pages list only 14 different locations for this church in Portugal, the author has observed, during a visit to their headquarters, a map with pins showing many more locations. In the case of the Manna Church, the Ministry of Justice’s list of non Catholic religious associations seems to be the most reliable source for it registers 36 locations of this Church.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses presence in Portugal dates from 1925 and thus provides a good measure against which to compare the younger Churches’ implementation. Therefore, the we mapped these Churches’ presence in Portugal combining non redundant information from both sources:


Figure 1 - Regional implementation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, UCKG an Manna Churches.

As the map shows, these NRMs have settled mainly on urban areas; a fact that has been noticed by the Portuguese information agency, the SIS, for at their homepage it can be read that one of the current menaces to the Portuguese state is the coming about of new sects and pseudo-religious movements with a solid implantation in the urban areas -- and even in some rural ones -- whose activities can represent a serious risk for the citizen’s individual guarantees. In the most radical instances, the sects can promote the practice of terrorist acts (e.g., the Supreme Truth, in Japan) or the collective suicide of its members (e.g., the Jones sect, in Guyana, the davidians, in Texas, or the Temple of the Sun, in Switzerland).

This institutional suspicion on the NRMs means, of course, that they are constantly under vigilance. Pastor Tadeu, founder of the Manna Church seems to take it lightly and in conversation with the author claimed to have converted, at least, an infiltrated investigator.

The quest for a Portuguese scholarly discourse on the NRMs

A query on NRMs through the National Library’s catalogue reveals no matches. If we try instead the term sect, we find eight registers. Of these, only one is not a translation, and that one is Confluências sócio-religiosas na África Oriental by Fernando Amaro Monteiro, a book focusing on Africa. The quest for a Portuguese scholarly discourse on NRMs had to be resumed by more subtle ways. The bibliography of Deus, o Demónio e o Homem. O fenómeno Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus, a 1999 book on the UCKG, mentions two genuinely Portuguese texts on the subject of the sects. The literal translation of the titles is: UCKG: tentacles of a monstrous octopus aimed at seizing power and Parasites of God: the new sects.

Figure 2 - The cover of UCKG: tentacles of a monstrous octopus aimed at seizing power

Since the authors of these titles didn’t even bother to seek the veneer of scientific impartiality, they were automatically excluded from the scope of this analysis. Running out of alternatives, we looked into As Novas Seitas Cristãs e a Bíblia, a book by Carreira das Neves, a Catholic theologian, for references to some other Portuguese work on NRMs but found none.

Scavenging for references from where to start snowball sampling, we examined the European Union’s Berger Report on sects; it states that for Portugal there is no concrete data and hence, no discourse to analyze.

Thus, the corpus of suitable materials that we were able to exhume was quite reduced. It consists to the afore mentioned book on the UCKG by Rodrigues and Ruuth, of the book by Carreira das Neves on the sects and the Bible, of a paper by another Professor at the Catholic University, Mário F. Lages, and of an article by a judge, Teles Pereira, in which he discusses the juridic framing of NRMs.

Critical assessment

The book by Rodrigues and Ruuth on the UCKG begins and ends quoting Durkheim on that there are no false religions because they all respond in different ways to determinate conditions and needs of human life. That the authors have found necessary to do so is revealing not only of their proposed commitment towards scientific impartiality but as well of the strength of the negative representations of this NRM that are at large in Portuguese society and from which a discourse that claims to be scientific must demarcate itself.

But the social bias is so strong that even authors who start their books with such declarations occasionally slip into the rhetoric of manipulation without defining the concept and thus allowing, if not encouraging, the reader to infer the worst connotations from its use. This happens in pages 36, 55 and 90 of God, the Devil and Man.

A further example of implicit value judgement can be found by the concluding remarks. By page 132 the authors state that the problem with the UCKG is that the alliance with God through it is an unequal exchange. This is so because after the tithe is given to the church there is no guarantee that the believer will receive the benefits from God. This fact is evidently a universal of all relations between man an divinity, for prayer, sacrifices or good deeds offer no more guarantees than the tithe; therefore, its particularisation on this church and the tithe is entirely abusive.

The book by Carreira das Neves takes a more theological approach. The author opposes an historicist reading of the Bible by a tolerant Catholic Church to the half-educated ramblings of fundamentalists for whom the Bible is both self sufficient and self evident (1997: 13-14).

The book consists of several sections, one by NRM. In each one of these, extensive theological fencing is used to back up the acrid remarks in a show of erudition that baffles laymen as ourselves. A somewhat burlesque example of these acrid remarks is the allegation, in page 153, that "The Christian sects neither kill by the sword nor burn heretics but kill the psychological freedom of people".

Moreover, he deliberately denies any difference between NRM and sect, thus emptying both concepts of all heuristic power and permitting affirmations like that "the new religious movements end up being theocratic"(1998: 144).

Mário F. Lages, another Professor at the Catholic University, differs from Carreira das Neves on his approach to the subject of NRMs: instead of muddling the concept of NRM with that of sect, he openly denies any heuristic value to the former concept. He proposes instead to work with the concept of minority religious group for, he argues, much more can be gleaned of a group’s sociological functions from dominant or subordinate position than from its newness (1997: 1).

One consequence of this reasoning is that he feels free to pack together Judaism, Islam, Protestantism, Orthodox Christianity, and Hinduism with the Manna Church and the UCKG. All of these are, according to this author, "cultural outcasts, fighting for recognition" (idem: 2). Unfortunately, this bold theoretical innovation of his fails to come true a few pages later, as the author writes that "Protestantism, which had been, for a long time, a minority group left its position as the main contestant to Catholicity. Other Christian groups like the UCKG and Manna Church show up taking the lead in a turn of strong and aggressive proselytism" (idem: 9)

The rest of the paper consists of an external approach to the object by means of data derived both from the 1991 census and the ministry of Justice’s list of non Catholic religious associations, from time to time punctuated by tenuously related affirmations about the religious minorities.

Finally, we will look into a paper by Teles Pereira, a judge, on juridical aspects of the NRMs in Portugal. This text starts by a brief overview of the Portuguese religious background and present situation. It then moves towards an explanation of the Portuguese legal framing of the NRMs.

Since we weren’t able to find any bias in this text, we will simply convey to you some of its information that we found particularly relevant to our theme here.

For instance, we learn from this article that the only Portuguese public initiative for the study of a NRM was the request by the Regional Centre of Social Security of Lisbon for a report on the UCKG. This was ordered from an Egyptologist at the New University of Lisbon and a copy of it somehow got to a newspaper. The quotations that appeared on the newspaper show plainly that the said report made use of the brainwashing argument.

And then we learn that in Portugal there is no legal definition of NRM or of sect and Jonatas Machado, a jurist, has criticised the search for such a definition for it risks to become a pre-comprehension in matter of religion. A similar question arises from the projected new law of religious liberty because of the controversial conditions it establishes for a movement to access full religion status. According to the project, this status can be only be granted to movements established for more than thirty years in Portugal and still and after the Minister of Justice has heard the opinion of the Commission of Religious Liberty, which is formed by representatives of the already recognised religions.


Trying to sum it up, we may observe that in Portugal the field of the study of new religions is, at best, incipient. For not only are works in this field scarce but, as can be grasped from the dates of publishing of the reviewed ones, the concern of Portuguese scholars with the NRMs is recent. In addition, the few works we reviewed show considerable mainstream culture bias; a fact that can be partially explained by traceable strong affiliations of many of the scholars engaged in such studies with the traditional church.

Furthermore, there is evidence of a fight for the definition of what is a true religion. This conflagration reaches across many kinds of social space and mobilises many instances of symbolic power: the press, the pulpit, the parliament and, increasingly, the academy.




[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]