An evangelical sect which claims faith healing can cure HIV, epilepsy and depression is attempting to gain a foothold in New Zealand.

The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God has begun hosting monthly faith healing nights in Auckland.

The church, which claims to have branches in 90 countries and 100 members in New Zealand, teaches that many physical and mental ailments are caused by demons or evil forces that can be exorcised through prayer.

Auckland services are conducted by Bishop Wellington Cardoso, who travels from his base in Sydney.

But the church's use of "divine healing" - which it claims can "cure" homosexuality and conditions as varied as epilepsy, HIV, depression and financial problems - has prompted warnings of the unproven medical value of faith healing.

In January, the UCKG Help Centre was registered as a charitable trust in New Zealand for the purpose of setting up a church.

At a service at the Salvation Army Congress Hall on Queen St last week, Bishop Cardoso reiterated his intention to establish a formal church in New Zealand soon.

Founded in 1977 in Brazil by self-appointed Bishop Edir Macedo, the UCKG is reported to have more than six million members.

But it has been dogged by allegations of corruption and was the subject of a Charities Commission inquiry in the UK following its involvement in the death of a young female abuse victim in 2000.

In a report on the UCKG in 1997 a submission to the Belgian parliament said: "This is an authentic crime organisation whose only goal is to enrich itself. This is an extreme form of religious merchandising."

Bishop Cardoso referred inquiries from the Herald On Sunday to the church's public relations officer in Sydney.

In a written response, spokeswoman Anna Kovinski said "a vast number of people" had experienced improved health after attending church prayer meetings.

She said those who claimed to have been healed were required to have a doctor confirm their statement, which was then signed and kept on file.

But Dr Peter Foley, chair of the NZ Medical Association's General Practitioner Council, issued a strong note of caution.

"Many conditions will spon-taneously improve and if you're involved in a particular treatment process at the time then that may get the credit.

"It doesn't mean it was the cause of the improvement."

Vicki Hyde of the New Zealand Skeptics said the suggestion faith healing was a substitute for conventional medicine was "of grave concern".

"If their prayer was so effective, you have to ask why are there so many sick people still around," she said.

- HERALD ON SUNDAY 


* Correction: This article originally carried the misleading headline "Church tells followers to use prayer, not medicine". While the church does believe God is able to cure ailments through faith, it does not advocate faith healing as a substitute for medicine or conventional healing. The article also incorrectly attributed critical comments about the church to a report of the Belgium Parliament. The comments were in fact made in a submission to the Belgium Parliament.