SÃO PAULO, Brazil – Church leaders have come under increasing attack in Brazil, as the country’s polarization gets worse under conservative President Jair Bolsonaro’s controversial handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The president – who modeled much of his 2018 presidential campaign on Donald Trump’s successful 2016 run – has drawn criticism for his lax response to the coronavirus in a country where it has killed around 60,000 people.

Supporters of the president have often attacked the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB), accusing it of being “communist” and supporting the opposition.

The most serious recent case involved a far-right group called 300 do Brasil (300 from Brazil), led by Sara Winter.

A former feminist activist who years ago founded the Brazilian branch of the Ukrainian movement Femen – famous for their topless protests at the Vatican – the now Catholic and pro-life organizer camped with members of her movement at the Esplanada dos Ministérios, a large esplanade surrounded by the buildings of government ministries in the capital Brasilia; the area is also the location of the city’s Catholic cathedral.

The group occupied part of the Esplanada’s lawn in order to protest against what it claims is the Brazilian Supreme Court’s meddling in Bolsonaro’s administration.

On June 13, the local police dismantled the camp, which had been set inside a security zone. Three days later, the group started to set up a new camp in the Esplanada, but now in an area near the cathedral. Five of its members went to the Curia and asked for permission from auxiliary Bishop Marcony Ferreira.

“I politely welcomed them but told them that I couldn’t allow it because – among other reasons – we had just established a protocol with the government concerning the reopening of churches and the attendance to in-person celebrations. I was not going to disobey a governmental decree,” Ferreira told the local newspaper Correio Braziliense.

“That’s when one of them said: ‘You don’t know who you’re talking to, but we’ll be back’,” he continued.

The threat was taken seriously by Ferreira, since Winter already told the press that some the members of 300 do Brasil carry guns.

The Archdiocese of Brasilia said in a statement that it feared that acts of vandalism might be committed against the cathedral, a historic Modernist structure designed by the architect Oscar Niemeyer.

Ferreira complained to the police about the situation and the governor of the Federal District Ibaneis Rocha decided to shut down the Esplanada to the public for two days.

On the following day, Archbishop Walmor Oliveira de Azevedo, the CNBB president, issued a statement demanding the authorities to curb the actions of extremist groups in the country. “Such groups cannot keep disfiguring the Brazilian democracy with attacks against institutions, against religion, and against the ones who do not share their worldview,” he said.

Francisco Borba Ribeiro Neto, the director of the Pontifical Catholic University’s Center of Faith and Culture in São Paulo, said the incident was the result of a new political reality in Brazil, made more tense by a strategy of perpetual conflict advocated by some of Bolsonaro’s supporters.

“Such influencers, who should be called haters, constitute a political movement based on the constant need to attack alleged enemies in order to keep visible,” he said.

“Now, unfortunately, the Brazilian bishops are being identified as members of the left-wing opposition to Bolsonaro,” Ribeiro Neto said.

The political crisis that Bolsonaro currently faces – he’s being accused of mismanaging the COVID-19 pandemic and is dealing with a corruption scandal involving his son Flavio – may make some of his supporters more prone to violence, Ribeiro Neto claimed.

“Bolsonarists are employing more and more signs of force and aggressiveness to keep their social place,” he said.

Bishop Jailton Lino of the Diocese of Teixeira de Freitas-Caravelas, in Bahia State, said that “political Manichaeism” has been causing a new wave of conflicts in the country.

Lino has been called an “ignorant” and a “liar” on a radio show by the mayor of Itamaraju, one of the cities of his diocese, after criticizing the way that local politicians were dealing with the pandemic during a Mass.

According to Lino, a temporary hospital was to be placed in Itamaraju in March to handle COVID-19 cases, but a local group didn’t want it in the area. Only two weeks later the hospital was finally established in the city of Teixeira de Freitas.

“Itamaraju would be a geographically better choice due to its centrality in the region. But we lost much time with this hesitancy,” the bishop said.

In the meantime, a member of a Catholic community in Itamaraju was infected with the coronavirus and couldn’t get a hospital bed to receive treatment.

“People called me and asked help, but I couldn’t do anything. That was a very painful situation,” Lino told Crux.

The man was transferred to the State capital several days later but died one day after being hospitalized.

“I was deeply saddened by his death and mentioned his case during Mass. I asked the local politicians to think about their decisions and focus on the battle against the pandemic. Somebody probably told the mayor something different about my speech, because his comments didn’t relate to it,” he said.

The mayor’s comments caused outrage among the local clergy, and a group of priests released a public statement to repudiate them. However, Lino refused several invitations from the press to directly confront the mayor.

“We’re living very tense moments. We have to be mature and ponder our words. I’ll have a polite talk with the mayor after the current crisis passes. Now it’s time to confront the virus,” he said.