A controversial church regarded by some as a “cult” is coming to Belfast, after receiving planning permission from the council for a place of worship in the city.
The Universal Church of God (UCKG), which is banned in several countries, will be establishing itself in Equality House in the Donegall Pass area.
Founded in Brazil in 1977 by self-styled Bishop Edir Macedo, the UCKG has around 12 million members in 200 countries.
Over the years, however, it has also been involved in several controversies.
The church places a strong emphasis on money and employs “tithing”, a practice whereby members of their congregation donate a fraction of their income to the church.
“The tithe is 10% of all income, and it belongs to God. This is a very ancient practice followed by God-fearing people everywhere,” according to the UCKG website.
This has led to accusations of charlatanism against the church and, according to Forbes magazine, has also made Bishop Edir Macedo a billionaire.
The UCKG was previously banned in Zambia by the government after allegations that it was involved in “satanic rituals”.
In 1997 the Advertising Standards Authority banned a church poster that claimed:
“Constant headaches, depression, insomnia, fears, bad luck, strange diseases… These are just a few symptoms caused by demons.”
In 2009 another poster was banned for claiming “blessed oil” could cure heart problems.
The UCKG has several “HelpCentres” in England, where it is registered as a charity with an annual income of £15m, and a small presence in the Republic of Ireland, however it has no permanent base in Northern Ireland.
It isn’t just financial or advertising standards issues the UCKG has found itself in hot water over.
Almost two decades ago, the church fell into controversy after the death of 8-year-old Victoria Climbie in London, in what is still regarded as one of the UK’s worst abuse cases.
Victoria was taken to a UCKG centre in February 2000 for an “exorcism” by her great-aunt, Marie Therese Kouao.
Kouao was found guilty of her murder in January 2001. The church was later cleared of any wrongdoing, however the Charity Commission recommended the UCKG implement child protection policies in the future.
In December 2017, Portugal’s Attorney General’s Office opened an inquiry into the alleged illegal adoption of babies arranged by a centre run by the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.
A seven-month inquiry by a Portuguese TV station alleged that at least ten Portuguese children were stolen from their biological mothers in the 1990s from a UCKG reception centre in Lisbon.
Allegedly, the babies were taken from Portugal and adopted by couples based overseas.
The Attorney General's Office has stated that "there is an investigation related to this matter, and it has been referred to the Department of Investigation and Criminal Action of Lisbon for investigation." The inquiry is ongoing.
Denying these allegations, the church says any such claims are the result of a “defamatory campaign of lies”.