SÃO PAULO – The announcement of the Feb. 13 meeting between Pope Francis and the former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has caused controversy in the politically divided South American country.

Both Lula’s supporters and his detractors saw his audience with the pope as a kind of veiled support from the pope for the controversial politician, but some observers say it’s not that simple.

A center-left politician who ruled Brazil between 2003 and 2010 and enjoyed great popularity due to the success of his social policies, Lula has become in the past few years the main target of several investigations concerning his actions during his presidency.

In one of them, known as Operation Car Wash, he was accused of having received a triplex apartment from a construction company which had contracts with Petrobras, the Brazilian state-owned oil firm. The apartment, according to prosecutors, was a bribe. Lula was sentenced to 12 years in prison and was incarcerated for 580 days between 2018 and November 2019.

He was released from jail after a court said he can only be imprisoned after all of his appeals are exhausted.

Meanwhile, the main judge of Operation Car Wash, Sérgio Moro, saw his popularity skyrocket among the Brazilian right-wing and was invited by archconservative President Jair Bolsonaro, elected at the end of 2018, to be his Minister of Justice.

In June of 2019, the American journalist Glenn Greenwald started to publish a series of stories based on leaked Telegram Messenger conversations between Car Wash prosecutors and Moro, suggesting that there was some coordination in the actions of the operation in order to build a case against Lula and other members of his Workers’ Party (called the PT).

Lula still faces six separate charges, but claims the charges against him are politically motivated.

The meeting between Lula and Francis was announced by the Argentinian president Alberto Fernández on January 31, after he met with the pontiff in Rome. According to Fernández, the idea of Lula’s visit appeared precisely when he and Francis were discussing themes related to law and the use of the judiciary to fight political enemies.

When he was imprisoned, Lula sent a letter to Francis, saying that he was fighting to prove his innocence and that he was convicted because of his policies to benefit the poor. He also mentioned his personal losses – the deaths of his brother and his grandson.  After almost a month, Francis answered Lula’s letter, expressing his “spiritual closeness” in regard to Lula’s losses and encouraging him to trust in God.

Lula confirmed the Vatican meeting with the pontiff on his Twitter account on February 5, saying that he would visit Francis in order to “thank him for the solidarity” manifested by him in hard time and to “debate the Brazilian experience in fighting poverty.”

According to theologian Leonardo Boff, an old-time friend of Lula who had visited him during his term in jail, Francis would never meddle in matters of a foreign country.

“The pope may subjectively think it was an unfair imprisonment. But he would never publicly declare it, officially or not,” he told Crux.

Francisco Borba Ribeiro Neto, coordinator of the Center for Faith and Culture at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo, says the meeting is above all an obligation of the pope, as a head of state, to invite all international leaders who manifest the desire to meet with him.

“If we consider that the pope is signaling that he believes in Lula’s innocence because he will have a meeting with him, we would also have to think that he supports Bolsonaro’s policies, given that he met with the first lady Michelle Bolsonaro in December. This is obviously illogical,” he told Crux.

However, according to Catholic lay theologian Jung Mo Sung, Francis may be signaling, at the least, that he appreciates the social policies which Lula applied in Brazil during his tenures as president.

“Lula is a global leader whose social policies made the economy grow. In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis criticized the so-called trickle-down theories – the ideology that the enrichment of the rich benefits the poor. He’s a critic of neo-liberalism,” Catholic lay theologian Jung Mo Sung told Crux.

“The Economy of Francis,” an event being promoted by the pontiff in Assisi March 26-28 to reflect on new economic systems, may be one of the agenda items during the pope’s meeting with Lula, according to Boff.

“Lula and President Dilma Rousseff [Lula’s chosen successor, who served 2011-2016] managed to greatly reduce inequality in Brazil. This would be an exchange of ideas and accounts on how such things are frankly possible, even in a dominant system that, by its own nature, always creates inequality,” he said.

In Brazil, Francis’s criticism of the current economic system and his support for the usually left-leaning “popular movements” which fight to reduce inequality is seen as a trait of “communism” by parts Bolsonaro’s constituency.

His meeting with Lula – also vilified as a “communist” by Bolsonaro’s followers – may reinforce such a vision among Evangelicals and even some Catholics, argued Sung.

The opposition of Bolsonaro’s followers to Francis, expressed particularly on right-wing social media, is at times noisy, but Sung said the actual proportion of Brazilian Catholics who oppose the pope for political reasons isn’t really that large.

So far, the Brazilian president hasn’t commented on Lula’s meeting with Francis.

“Maybe Bolsonaro could use the meeting and pose as the leader of Conservative Christians in Brazil,” Sung said. “But the pope is not meddling in party politics.”

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