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At Least 9 Killed, 96 Injured in Brazil Church Collapse

Police and rescuers picked through a latticework of bent steel Monday after the roof at one of Brazil's largest evangelical churches collapsed between services, killing at least nine people.

Nearly 100 people were injured, but the toll could have been much worse because the roof caved in less than an hour after a Sunday service at the Reborn in Christ church attracted thousands of young worshippers — and minutes before another service for adults.

Two of the injured died at local hospitals Monday, said church spokeswoman Marli Goncalves. That raised the death toll to nine. She said 96 people were injured and six were still hospitalized in serious condition.

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Firefighters told Globo TV they were searching the wreckage for one person who was still missing.

It could take a month to determine the cause of the collapse in the coverted movie theater, authorities said. The church denied reports that the roof had recently been renovated, and Goncalves said the building was up to code.

Reborn in Christ claims 2 million members worldwide, with Brazilian football star Kaka its most prominent. The AC Milan star was married in the church in 2005.

Church leaders Estevam Hernandes Filho and Sonia Haddad Moraes Hernandes pleaded guilty in 2007 to smuggling more than $56,000 into the United States hidden in their luggage.

They are currently on probation in Florida, and are expected to return to Brazil in June, Goncalves said.

The two issued a statement on the church's Web site saying they were devastated by the collapse that "brought so much horror" and were praying for the victims.

Hernandes, a former Xerox marketing executive, started the church with his wife in the back room of a Sao Paulo pizza parlor in 1986. Their evangelical empire now boasts newspapers, TV and radio stations, a recording company and the Brazilian patent on the English word "gospel."

The church has some 1,200 temples in Brazil, the United States, Argentina and Italy. The Sao Paulo church is its headquarters, and the church's annual "March for Jesus" rally in South America's largest city draws millions.