SÃO PAULO – An interreligious ceremony held at the cathedral of São Paulo to support the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon was accused by critics as a cover for left-wing activism inside the Church.

The Sept. 30 event was organized by the inter-religious coalition Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns Front for Justice and Peace. It was attended by Cardinal Odilio Scherer, the Archbishop of São Paulo, as well as Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the president of the Pan-Amazon Ecclesial Network, who will be the relator general for the synod.

Leaders of other religions took part in the event, including other Christian denominations, Jews, and Muslims.

The ceremony began with the reading of a document that was collectively written by the religious leaders that criticized the campaign among some conservatives against the synod: “It is an unfounded suspicion the one which emerged among nationalist circles that the Synod serves international ambitions in the Amazon,” the statement said.

Video footage published by the Instagram user Guilherme de Maria, who identifies as a young, conservative Catholic, shows participants of the event being questioned about banners saying Free Lula! that were hanging inside the cathedral. The slogan is part of a campaign of the Workers’ Party – a center-left party which ruled Brazil from 2003 to 2016 – for the immediate liberation of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who has been imprisoned since 2018 after being convicted on bribery charges.

The producers of the video can be heard as they tell the attendees of the celebration to remove the pro-Lula banners. After that, they are asked to leave the church by a few participants and by the cathedral security staff. Tension escalates and there’s some physical contact, but no actual violence can be seen. The anti-Amazon synod demonstrators apparently held banners and one of the signs was taken by a pro-synod participant.

The video went viral on the internet, with thousands of views in just a few days. Several right-wing websites republished it, calling the celebration a “profanity at the church” and accused the synod for the Amazon of having a pro-Workers’ Party stance.

One of Guilherme de Maria’s followers on Twitter commented: “The Synod for the Amazon does have a party bias! […] The church [is] not a political stage! No more heresy.”

On October 1, Scherer issued a statement about the events of the previous day, asserting that “there was no mention to [the slogan] ‘Free Lula’.”

“After I left the cathedral, I saw images on social media of banners hanging in something like a clothesline in one lateral area of the cathedral, with the lettering ‘Lula livre’. That was the work of someone who unfortunately took advantage of the moment. But none of that was part of the organization of the inter-religious event or had influence on it,” read the statement.

The document said no politician spoke during the event and “no politician’s name was even mentioned.”

“Everything happened in complete serenity and without any inconvenience. The ones who assert it was a ‘mess’ and a ‘profanity’ are far from the truth. Anyone saying this is lying,” the cardinal said.

Scherer mentioned the “beginning of a disturbance” at the entrance of the cathedral but denied that the demonstrators were expelled from the church.

“Watching the images and listening to what people said, I realized that some people tried to prevent the youngsters from entering the cathedral to protest. But nobody ‘expelled’ the youngsters from the cathedral, and certainly not by the initiative of the cathedral itself or the archbishop.”

The statement clarified that “no individual stance or manifestation, which had not been programmed as part of the inter-religious act, can be mistaken by the act itself or by the purpose of its organizers, which was to demonstrate appreciation for the realization of the synodal assembly for the great Amazonian region.”

Scherer concluded the statement by saying that people should dialogue and collaborate to “search for solutions to so many concrete problems around us and to the things that are really important in the world, the ‘common house’ of us all, entrusted to our care.”

The synod has faced criticism from some conservative quarters for its possible openness to married priests, the emphasis on enviromental issues, and advocacy of indigenous rights.

The conservative government of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has said it is “monitoring” the synod to ensure it doesn’t infringe on the sovereignty of Brazil, which contains 60 percent of the  Amazon region. On Wednesday, Bolsonaro met with Archbishop Giovanni d’Aniello, the papal representative to Brazil, for a private meeting.

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