SÃO PAULO –Brazil’s government has confirmed it is “keeping track of” the preparatory works of the Amazon Synod but is not monitoring members of the Church.

In February, the newspaper O Estado de São Paulo revealed that the Institutional Security Office (known as GSI) – a cabinet agency that coordinates government intelligence – was leading an operation to “neutralize” what it saw as the Catholic Church’s opposition to President Jair Bolsonaro.

According to the report, the GSI considered that the upcoming Synod for the Pan-Amazon Region will discuss themes connected to the protection of the rainforest, the rights of indigenous peoples and climate change – all of them reputed as a “leftist agenda” by the GSI minister, General Augusto Heleno.

Heleno, according to Estado’s story, was acting to prevent what he saw as the “progressive clergy” meddling in Brazilian national affairs. The report said that the Brazilian intelligence agency was infiltrating the preparatory meetings in parishes and dioceses. The GSI later denied it was spying on the Church.

On August 31, Bolsonaro told journalists that the Brazilian intelligence agency is monitoring the preparation of the Synod, declaring that “there’s much political influence there [in the bishops’ preparatory meetings], indeed.”

On September 2, General Eduardo Villas Bôas, formerly the Army commander-in-chief and currently an advisor at the GSI, told O Estado that as the Synod began to deal with environmental issues, it acquired a “political bias.” He said the Bolsonaro administration doesn’t consider the Brazilian Church to be its enemy, but claimed the Brazilian bishops are misled by “distorted data” on the Amazonian reality. Villas Bôas declared the government will not accept any interference in domestic issues coming from the Synod’s final document.

In the same interview, he argued that legislation should allow the exploitation of mineral resources, agricultural activities and logging in indigenous reservations in the Amazon. The Synod preparatory documents support the rights of the Amazonian peoples to keep their traditions and ways of life.

On September 9, the GSI sent a statement to O Estado declaring that no “social movement, member of the clergy, indigenous or quilombola [descendants of slaves that escaped captivity] community, rural settlement, or NGO” is being monitored by the intelligence agency. The agency, however, “keeps tracking [of such entities] through open sources,” in order to “update scenarios and evaluate the internal conjuncture.” No agents, according to the GSI, are spying on the Brazilian clergy.

With the increasing rate of deforestation in the Amazon – according to the government agency that monitors the rainforest with satellites, there was a rise of 278 percent in deforestation in July, compared to the same month of 2018 – and a record number of wildfires, the environmental crisis provoked criticism of the Brazilian government in August, including from the Church.

In July, Bolsonaro refused to acknowledge the veracity of the deforestation data and fired the director of the agency in charge of it. In August, he accused – without providing any evidence – NGOs of causing massive wildfires in the Amazon.

Since the 2018 presidential campaign, he has been promising to loosen environmental legislation in Brazil. The former general is an admirer of President Donald Trump, and has openly emulated the U.S. leader’s confrontational style.

Many environmental rights activists have claimed that the current crisis is a product of Bolsonaro’s pro-development policies in Brazil’s Amazon region.

On August 23, the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (NCBB) released a statement demanding “immediate actions” to put an end to the wildfires in the Amazon. Without mentioning Bolsonaro by name, the document said “this is not the time for insanities and absurdities in judgement or in speech,” a clear reference to his accusations against the NGOs.

On August 30, the Amazonian bishops released an open letter after concluding their final preparatory assembly before the Synod, in the city of Belém. The document said the leaders of the struggles for human rights, dignity and the environment in the Amazon “were being criminalized as enemies of the country.”

Last week, the NCBB and the Pan-Amazon Ecclesial Network launched a campaign to demonstrate the relevance of the Amazon Synod and deal with the “misconceptions and misunderstandings” that have involved the preparatory works in the past few months. The campaign included videos with discussion of themes related to the Synod presented by bishops and other members of the clergy.

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