Religious groups are up in arms at the plans of a controversial Brazilian church to hold a mass miracle healing event in South Africa on New Year's Eve.
The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG) was banned for the second time in Zambia last week and is being investigated by concerned religious groups in South Africa who say bizarre allegations have been made about the church, ranging from satanic worship to child sacrifice .
The UCKG intends holding a mass miracle-healing event at Johannesburg's FNB Stadium on New Year's Eve and has been advertising the rally on television adverts as a cure-all for improved finances and health.
The UCKG was founded in 1977 by self-professed Brazilian street preacher Emir Macedo and has long been tainted by claims of satanic worship.
This is the Zambian government's second attempt to outlaw the organisation - on the previous occasion the government claimed the church had solicited blood from its members.
Crowds rioted in the capital Lusaka last month amid rumours of a planned ritual sacrifice of two people who were said to have been taken hostage by the church. Madagascar banned the church in February this year and jailed four senior church officials for burning bibles.
The UCKG claims a presence in about 85 countries around the world and at least 22 in Africa.
The church has been the centre of media speculation from Los Angeles and Paris to Madagascar and Mozambique; numerous articles have alleged the church is involved in money laundering and even drug smuggling.
All allegations have been denied by the UCKG and investigations launched by various governments have come up with nothing.
Besides the sprawling international network of churches, Macedo also heads a wealthy business empire in Brazil which includes a television network, radio stations and a bank.
Reverend Moss Nthla, co-ordinator of the Evangelical Alliance of South Africa (TEASA), said on Friday that his organisation had been investigating the activities of the UCKG for a long time. He said the Human Rights Commission had advised them to take the complaints to the police.
"We must pursue this with the police... although they are likely to have a limited agenda and would probably concentrate on the drugs and the money laundering.
"They would not deal with the spiritual concerns," he said.
Nthla said "several people" had complained to TEASA about various aspects of the UCKG's operation in SA. Complaints ranged from "satanic influences" to human sacrifice.
Dr Molefe Tsele, general secretary of the South African Council of Churches (SACC), confirmed that the organisation was working on "ongoing research" into emerging churches such as the UCKG.
Nthla said TEASA had co-sponsored a meeting with the SACC in 2000 in which testimonies of former UCKG employees and allegations against the UCKG were discussed.
One man, claiming to be a former UCKG pastor, submitted a videotaped testimony in which he listed a host of allegations including that children were sacrificed and their bones ground into a salt to be given out to worshippers during church services.
He also claimed that the church was involved in drug smuggling.
Nthla said the man had also said that human blood was mixed with a type of oil to form a concoction, which was then used during blessing ceremonies in the churches.
"The challenge for us is that it's very difficult to pin down all these claims... But we really want to blow the whistle on the these guys.
"The institution presents itself as a Christian church or an ordinary Pentecostal or Evangelical church at a superficial rhetoric level but when you look deeper down you'll hear about all these Satanic influences.
"The problem is proving them in a court of law," he said.
The church's South African chapter has been growing in leaps and bounds since opening its first branch in Johannesburg in 1992. Its South African website says the church is active in eight provinces with main "cathedrals" in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban and Cape Town.
Nthla said the alliance was working on a statement intended for release in the next few days in order to warn people against the miracle-healing gathering on New Year's Eve.
He added that the seeming ease with which the church operated in South Africa should serve as a wake-up call to the religious community which also needed to take responsibility for the mushrooming of such "suspicious institutions".