Officials in Brazil and the U.S. announced Wednesday that they are investigating the controversial evangelical Word of Faith Fellowship Church in Spindale, North Carolina, after the sect was accused of enticing young members of the Brazilian branch of their church to come to America on tourist and student visas, then coercing them to illegally work "like slaves" with little or no pay.
A statement issued by the U.S. consulate in Rio de Janeiro Wednesday said the State Department was investigating the claims and that it "takes all allegations of fraud seriously and strives to ensure the integrity of U.S. visa and U.S. passport adjudications," The Associated Press reported.
Jill Rose, the U.S. attorney in Charlotte, told the news agency that her office also has an "active, ongoing investigation into allegations against Word of Faith Fellowship," but declined sharing details.
"Fact gathering is not a quick or easy process, which at times may lead to the erroneous perception that my office is not actively looking into a matter," Rose said.
Earlier this week, 16 Brazilians alleged in an AP report that they were forced to work "like slaves" while in the U.S. after being lured with the chance of coming to America to sightsee as tourists or study.
Ten former members of the church said they have since been contacted by U.S. federal and state authorities about the allegations.
"Everybody knew these trips were not about tourism," Paulo Henrique Barbosa, 23, who now works in information technology in Sao Paolo, told AP. "I didn't want to go, but I had no choice."
Unable to overrule the influence of his pastors who told him he would displease God by not going as well as his parents who supported their authority, Barbosa traveled to the U.S. for six months in 2011. And things turned out to be worse than he had imagined.
After his travel documents and money were allegedly put away for "safekeeping" by the church, he was put to work in the church's school during the day and worked in construction in the afternoons and evenings, sometimes until 1 a.m. the following day.
"There was never time to sit down. We were worked like slaves," Luiz Pires, another Brazilian who told AP that he was 18 in 2006 when he was encouraged by ministers in Brazil to travel to the North Carolina church for his spiritual development.
The Christian Post reached out to Word of Faith Fellowship on Thursday and a woman who identified herself only as Mary said she passed on earlier requests for comment to church leaders. The church's lawyer, she said, was responding to all media requests.
Word of Faith Fellowship church, founded by Jane Whaley and her husband Sam in 1979, describes itself as a nondenominational, Protestant Church with classical Christian conservative beliefs.
It also operates Word of Faith Christian School.