A husband and wife who lead one of Brazil's largest evangelical churches were sentenced to nearly five months in prison on Friday after pleading guilty to smuggling more than US$56,000 into the US hidden in luggage, a child's backpack and a Bible case.
Estevam Hernandes Filho and Sonia Haddad Moraes Hernandes must serve an additional five months of house arrest in the US and pay US$60,000 in fines.
Hernandes, 53, is to surrender tomorrow to begin serving his prison term. His 48-year-old wife will serve her house arrest term first at their Florida home and then report to prison on Jan. 21.
The couple -- known as Apostle Estevam and Bishop Sonia to their followers -- lead Brazil's Reborn in Christ Church, which they founded in 1986 and which now claims hundreds of thousands of followers.
Brazilian authorities are seeking the couple's extradition on charges of looting parishioners' donations for their own use.
The couple were arrested Jan. 8 at Miami International Airport. They pleaded guilty in June to failing to declare on a customs form that they were carrying more than US$10,000 into the US.
The US judge that said he accepted the couple's explanation that the money they illegally brought into the US was not taken from church donations.
That money will be forfeited to the US government.
"I'm not considering the alleged fraud in Brazil. I leave that up to the Brazilian authorities," Moreno said.
Speaking in Portuguese that was translated into English, Sonia Haddad Hernandes asked for mercy and said she was sorry for what happened.
"I would just like to declare right here in front of everybody that I am deeply remorseful in my life," she said.
Estevam Hernandes Filho said that "for millions of people that believe in us, we have made them suffer."
Albert Krieger, one of the couple's lawyers, said they brought the money to the US as part of a plan to gradually move their permanent residence from Brazil to Florida out of fear they and their families might be targeted by kidnappers.
He said the money was hidden in various belongings because the couple worried about thieves at airports.
Assistant US Attorney Armando Rosquete, however, said it was "bizarre" for the church leaders to hide money in a Bible case.
"What I see in this case is an element of greed," he said.
In a statement released after learning of the sentence, the Reborn in Christ Church said: "In view of the court's final decision, we reaffirm our belief that `better days will come.'"
"We shall continue praying for our Apostle and our Bishop, knowing that once they complete their sentence they will return to guide us. They know that until they return ... their flock will continue walking down the path they have pointed out," the statement said.
Reborn in Christ spokesman Marcio Foffu said the church had no further comment.
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