MINDURI, Brazil — Welcome to Paradise Farm.
“We are all Christians who follow the New Testament,” said Paulo Henrique da Silva, president of the cooperative that manages the farm. “We came together to live as one.”
Yet this picture of faith, Brazilian authorities say, is masking a darker truth. Officials describe the ranch as part of a sprawling slave labor and racketeering ring led by Pastor Cícero Vicente de Araújo, a former salesman. Federal police are calling it another in an unusual string of high-profile criminal cases tied to evangelical churches here in Latin America’s largest nation.
The dramatic surge of evangelical Christianity in Brazil in recent decades is giving the religious right an increasingly powerful political voice. But in a country where corruption and malfeasance have already infiltrated the highest levels of politics and business, opportunists are also muscling in on houses of worship.
To be sure, it is a minority of evangelical churches that have been tainted by accusations, and the grass-roots churches generally have done a world of good, experts say. Evangelical churches have been credited with stepping in to fill gaps where the state has failed, providing poor worshipers with food, shelter, education and even loans.
Nonetheless, the faithful have been exploited by some leaders, who may take advantage of religious-freedom laws to hide illicit activity. In Brazil, churches do not have to disclose their financial records to government authorities, and worshipers rarely report their donations on tax forms. That makes it exceedingly hard, experts say, to track the flow of money in and out of such institutions.
‘There is a [legal] vacuum,” said Ivan de Oliveira Silva, a religious scholar in Sao Paulo. “The problem happens when there is no transparency.”
Last year, federal police busted a ring of evangelical pastors accused of running a Ponzi scheme in which 25,000 followers were asked to invest at least $1,000 with pledges of high returns that never materialized.
Two churches in the country’s largest evangelical network are under investigation for money laundering, and one of Brazil’s most well-known evangelical preachers, Edir Macedo, has been investigated before and is facing other probes.
Officials and former residents say the workers at Paradise Farm came from the susceptible flock of Araújo, the bearded 61-year-old who founded the Evangelical Community of Jesus’ Everlasting Truth. Over two decades, the Sao Paulo-based radio and Internet evangelist spread his church to four Brazilian states — drawing thousands of followers including homeless people, battered women and former drug addicts.
In February, authorities charged Araújo and 21 others with running a ring involving money laundering and human trafficking. Worshipers, officials say, were duped into handing over their savings and becoming laborers at nine farms and 17 businesses — from high-end steakhouses to gas stations.
Once there, they were discouraged from speaking to their families and paid little to no wages, authorities say. Araújo and other senior members of the church, meanwhile, allegedly built a $30 million agribusiness empire while surrounding themselves with luxury. Araújo is now on the run from Brazilian justice.
Raimundo Oliveira da Costa, a lawyer who represents both Araújo’s church and the farms, denied all charges against his clients, calling the recent arrests and official probes “a ferocious attack” on democracy, the free market and free will. Officials at the farms say they operate independently of Araújo’s church.
Former residents say they toiled at the farm from dawn until well after dusk.
“They called it paradise, but it was hell,” said Lucineide Torres da Silva, 48, who left the farm in 2014 after living there for nine years.
Among the other Brazilian religious institutions facing investigation, the Campinas church of the Brazilian Assemblies of God and a second Assemblies church in Sao Paulo are being probed for allegedly laundering $5 million for a prominent member, Eduardo Cunha, former speaker of the lower house of the National Congress. The churches say they are innocent.
Wealthy televangelist Macedo, head of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, is under investigation for money laundering, tax evasion and allegations that he ran a human-trafficking ring involving adopted children, authorities say.
Macedo, like Araújo, has proclaimed his innocence and branded the charges religious persecution. Macedo has been investigated at least twice in the past. In 1992, he was briefly jailed on fraud charges, but they were eventually dropped amid a lack of evidence.
Today, roughly 22 percent of Brazilians define themselves as evangelicals — a term used loosely here for sects of non-Catholic Christianity.
“Anyone can call themselves evangelical,” said Marcos Simas, a Rio de Janeiro-based religious scholar. “There isn’t the centralized control we see with Catholicism. The structure is so free that it allows these charlatans to arise.”
Many of the evangelical churches embrace what is called the prosperity gospel — or the belief that faith can lead to riches. The more cash you give your church, such sects maintain, the more you receive from God.
According to investigators, Araújo established his church in 1998, in a working-class neighborhood of Sao Paulo. He rapidly expanded, capturing attention through fiery radio sermons in which he spoke to the troubled about unconditional love and acceptance.
His sermons attracted people such as the mother of 27-year-old Natan da Silva. She took her son to live on Paradise Farm when he was 12, he said. He and his mother, he said, were promised a peaceful, communal life far away from the drugs and violence of their community in Sao Paulo.
But that idyllic life never materialized. “When we arrived, I was separated from my mother and sent to live in a room with 10 men,” he said. He was pulled out of school and sent to work the fields without pay, he said.
He abandoned the group three years ago. “I want to get back the 12 years I spent working day and night,” said da Silva, who now works as a busboy.
He and other former residents are suing the farm for compensation for their long years of labor. Former residents also say they were conned into selling their houses and possessions and giving them to the church. Da Costa, the church’s lawyer, denied the allegations: “I tell you that not one person in the case presented by the federal police has made any donations to the church.”
Brazil’s federal police got wind of the group after noticing a string of missing persons reports filed by family members. In 2013, authorities launched “Operation Canaan” — a probe into the church and its allied businesses. In February, authorities sought to arrest Araújo, but he fled.
The restaurants owned by the church have been shut down, but authorities have stopped short of closing the farms — in part because the hundreds of residents insist they are not slaves and have no desire to leave. They describe themselves as part of a cooperative that splits profits monthly. Several workers said those vary, but that in February, in addition to room and board, laborers received on average about $66, far below the minimum wage.
Da Silva, who runs the Paradise Farm’s association, denied authorities’ assertions that the farms use slave labor. He insisted they were not directly associated with Araújo’s church, and that the pastor served as a “consultant.”
Da Costa, the lawyer, said that all employees at the businesses received a salary.
Residents approached on the farm by two journalists appeared apprehensive, and one quaked while answering questions.
“I don’t receive a salary, I live off my production,” said Amilton Felix, 42, who moved to Paradise Farm from northern Brazil in 2005 with his wife and son. They were drawn by the connection to nature at the farm. “Other churches I’ve been to are all about enriching themselves. There, people give everything but stay empty. Here, I'm getting closer to the truth I seek.”