The dark side of religion: Cults in Brazil are exploiting and enslaving the faithful


Exploited cult followers who don’t see themselves as victims make authorities’ work harder.

After four years of silence, Ronaldo Soares received a startling text message from his estranged daughter one day last December.

“Help me get out of here please”, the 19-year-old texted him from a cult in Brazil, having stolen a phone from another member of the church where she was held captive in domestic servitude.

“I want to leave here, dad. I want to talk to you, but they won’t let me,” read the text from Soares’ daughter, who followed her mother in 2014 to join Igreja Adventista Remanescente de Laodiceia – a religious community based on a farm in Brasília.

After filing a police report, Soares drove 600 km (370 miles) to the farm, got his daughter back, and returned home.

The woman, who declined an interview request, is yet another victim of abuse at the hands of a cult in Brazil – with a string of cases being investigated by authorities and sparking debate about where religious practices end, and modern slavery begins.

Brazilian officials are targeting labor exploitation among cults, and last year found 565 suspected slaves linked to one church – Igreja Cristã Traduzindo o Verbo – who were working at its behest at farms, factories and restaurants in three states.

Data is scarce on the number of people who are enslaved by or rescued from slavery in Brazilian cults, but forced labor is rife in certain groups, according to ex-members, law enforcement and faith experts.

Cult followers who are exploited but do not see themselves as victims are the biggest obstacle that authorities face when building cases, according to labor inspectors and prosecutors.

“This is a major difficulty to stop the (cults’) criminal enterprises”, said Marcelo Campos, a labor inspector based in Minas Gerais, who has investigated Traduzindo o Verbo for years.

Traduzindo o Verbo denied that its members were kept like slaves, while Igreja Adventista Remanescente de Laodiceia refused to comment. Two other churches accused of exploitation, including one in the United States, denied all such allegations.


Thousands of denominations of Christianity exist in Brazil – the fifth largest nation in the world with 210 million people – offering varied interpretations of the Bible to suit all tastes.

While some faiths may seem unusual, what separates a cult from a legitimate religion is not its set of beliefs, but the abuse of its members, said Rick Alan Ross, executive director of the Cult Education Institute, a U.S. non-profit in New Jersey.

“(Modern slavery in cults globally) exists much more than we imagine”, Ross said. “It’s bizarre, but it’s true.”

“It’s all about isolation and control. If you can control what (people) read, see and hear, you control their mind.”

A famed Brazilian faith healer – João Teixeira de Faria – was charged in December with rape and sexual assault after allegations from hundreds of women who said he had abused them while seeking spiritual guidance or psychic healing from him.

Faria, known as “John of God”, became a celebrity after his healing methods were featured on Oprah Winfrey’s television show in 2013 and drew thousands of Brazilians and foreigners to his faith center in Abadiânia, a town in Goiás state.

At Ministério Evangélico Comunidade Rhema, a religious group in Franco da Rocha, São Paulo, followers were pressed to “open up” about their fears and shame, said Daniel – a former member.

“They use your fears against you, if you do not do as you’re told”, he said, refusing to give his name for fear of reprisals.

He worked for years for little to no pay selling paintings in a store partly owned by one of Rhema’s leaders – a pastor.

Abused Abroad

Rodrigo, another former member, also said that employees could go for months or years without compensation at the store.

More than two decades since it was created, Rhema has sent several young people to the Word of Faith Fellowship (WFF), a U.S. church based in North Carolina, said the Labor Prosecutors Office in São Paulo, which has investigated the Brazilian cult.

Rodrigo was one of them. He was not just expected to pray and study but forced to do arduous work at a marble factory.

“I once told my brother that this work was not fit for a human”, he said, adding that he was punished for complaining.

Rodrigo declined to give his real name as his whole family is part of Rhema. He left when he turned 18, five years ago.

The WFF denied allegations of trafficking and forced labor.

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