SÃO PAULO, Brazil – Menaced for his work with homeless people on the streets of São Paulo, a Brazilian priest has been issued a “precautionary measure” by the Organization of American States (OAS).
Father Julio Lancellotti has more than three decades of experience working in social activism among the poor. The priest and Daniel Feitosa, a homeless man who works with him, were granted the measure by the OAS’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) at the beginning of March.
The IACHR issues precautionary measures in “urgent situations presenting a risk of irreparable harm to persons or to subject matter of a pending petition or case before the organs of the inter-American system.” These measures call on national governments to take “protective measures” for people who are facing threats to their life or physical well-being.
The IACHR decided to issue a precautionary measure after analyzing the two men’s allegations of a wave of persecution they have been suffering for the past few years, and that increased in 2018. They say they received several death threats both by telephone and through social media, as well as facing other acts of intimidation – at times including violence – perpetrated even by the authorities.
Lancellotti is the episcopal vicar for the homeless people in the Archdiocese of São Paulo and is a well-known advocate of the rights of the poor, abandoned children and people with HIV/AIDS. For a long time, Lancellotti gave support to the residents of a slum known as Favela do Cimento (or the Cement Slum) near his parish, located in a middle-class neighborhood in São Paulo. Some of the nearby shopkeepers and residents, according to Lancellotti, never tolerated the slum and consequently resented his activism.
“Those threats are not new and sometimes get worse. Their targets are the homeless people. The neighborhood wants the slum out, so they make up numerous stories about me: They say I get money from drug traffickers and that criminals pay my rent,” Lancellotti told Crux.
But in the beginning of 2018 those rumors turned into threats. In a document presented to local prosecutors a year ago, Lancelotti’s lawyers compiled a list of posts on internet forums that encouraged acts of violence against him and his fellow activists. The attackers said things such as: “Death to Priest Julio” and “This guy has been doing overtime for too long, he should meet with the Creator.” Another comment reads: “First of all, someone should send this priest to hell, and then his followers.” No concrete measures were taken by the Brazilian authorities when these threats were reported, said Lancellotti.
The virtual attacks developed into face to face acts of intimidation by police officers: According to Feitosa, an officer told him once that “if we spot you [and Lancellotti] walking at night, we will kill you both.”
In September of 2018, another violent incident occurred: Lancellotti was trying to mediate an altercation between the city police and a small group of homeless people, whose personal effects had been wrongfully taken away by city garbage collectors. Accusing Lancellotti of having started the conflict, a police officer hit him, knocked him down and spat at him.
In the latter part of 2018, threats began happening on a weekly basis. Frequently, a homeless person would tell the priest that someone on the streets – many times a policeman – said they should all go away for good.
“Tell the f***ing priest that from January 1, everybody there is going to vanish,” an officer once allegedly warned a man, making reference to the beginning of the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro – a conservative politician often called the “Brazilian Donald Trump.” Many of his supporters elected him hoping he would confront what they considered to be undesirable social movements.
The IACHR required information on the case from the Brazilian government and sent representatives to the country in November 2018. After analyzing all documents, the Commission concluded that no effective measures had been taken to secure the rights of Lancellotti and Feitosa.
“Consequently, […] the Commission asked the State of Brazil to take any measures necessary to protect the rights to life and personal integrity of Julio Renato Lancellotti and Daniel Guerra Feitosa and to enable Julio Lancellotti to keep doing his work as a human rights defender without being subjected to threats, harassment or any other acts of violence for doing such work,” said the IACHR statement, released on March 21.
Only two days after OAS released the statement, on March 23, the Favela do Cimento was set on fire, destroying almost everything and killing one man. The next day, on March 24, the city government announced the area would be reclaimed and all residents would be relocated to shelters. Many people went to Lancellotti’s parish looking for help.
“Most of them are afraid on the streets. The police told them to keep distance from the area or they will be beaten,” the priest said.
Lancellotti told Crux he believes the OAS precautionary measure will increase the visibility of the homeless people’s struggle and function as a control measure of the menaces he and Feitosa are facing.
“But the Brazilian state, particularly the federal government, couldn’t care less about us. It would be a favor for them if someone killed me.”