Feb 19, 2007
MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- The minister has the number 666 tattooed on his arm.
But Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda is not your typical minister. De Jesus, or "Daddy" as his thousands of followers call him, does not merely pray to God: He says he is God.
"The spirit that is in me is the same spirit that was in Jesus of Nazareth," de Jesus says.
De Jesus' claims of divinity have angered Christian leaders, who say he is a fake. Religious experts say he may be something much more dangerous, a cult leader who really believes he is God.
"He's in their heads, he's inside the heads of those people," says Prof. Daniel Alvarez, a religion expert at Florida International University who has debated some of de Jesus' followers.
"De Jesus speaks with a kind of conviction that makes me consider him more like David Koresh or Jim Jones."
Is de Jesus really a cult leader like David Koresh, who died with more than 70 of his Branch Davidian followers in a fiery end to a standoff with federal authorities, or Jim Jones, the founder of the Peoples Temple who committed mass suicide with 900 followers in 1978?
De Jesus and his believers say their church -- "Creciendo en Gracia," Spanish for "Growing in grace" -- is misunderstood. Followers of the movement say they have proof that their minister is divine and that their church will one day soon be a major faith in the world.
But even de Jesus concedes that he is an unlikely leader of a church that claims thousands of members in more than 30 countries.
De Jesus, 61, grew up poor in Puerto Rico. He says he served stints in prison there for petty theft and says he was a heroin addict.
De Jesus says he learned he was Jesus reincarnate when he was visited in a dream by angels.
"The prophets, they spoke about me. It took me time to learn that, but I am what they were expecting, what they have been expecting for 2,000 years," de Jesus says.
The church that he began building 20 years ago in Miami resembles no other:
If Creciendo en Gracia is an atypical religious group, de Jesus also does not fit the mold of the average church leader. De Jesus flouts traditional vows of poverty.
He says he has a church-paid salary of $136,000 but lives more lavishly than that. During an interview, he showed off a diamond-encrusted Rolex to a CNN crew and said he has three just like them. He travels in armored Lexuses and BMWs, he says, for his safety. All are gifts from his devoted followers.
And what about the tattoo of 666 on his arm?
Although it's a number usually associated with Satan, not the son of God, de Jesus says that 666 and the Antichrist are, like him, misunderstood.
The Antichrist is not the devil, de Jesus tells his congregation; he's the being who replaces Jesus on Earth.
"Antichrist is the best person in the world," he says. "Antichrist means don't put your eyes on Jesus because Jesus of Nazareth wasn't a Christian. Antichrist means do not put your eyes on Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Put it on Jesus after the cross."
And de Jesus says that means him.
So far, de Jesus says that his flock hasn't been scared off by his claims of being the Antichrist. In a show of the sway he holds over the group, 30 members of his congregation Tuesday went to a tattoo parlor to have 666 also permanently etched onto their skin.
He may wield influence over them, but his followers say don't expect them to go the way of people who believed in David Koresh and Jim Jones. Just by finding de Jesus, they say, they have achieved their purpose.
"If somebody tells us drink some Kool-Aid and we'll go to heaven, that's not true. We are already in heavenly places," follower Martita Roca told CNN after having 666 tattooed onto her ankle.