A draft letter signed by a group of 146 Brazilian bishops with severe criticism on President Jair Bolsonaro was published by the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo on July 26.
The document, named “Letter to the People of God,” says that Brazil is facing one of the hardest periods in its history and blames Bolsonaro for the current political tensions in the country, and called the government too incompetent to manage the crisis.
Crux has confirmed the letter published is a draft document, but several of the signatories stand by the contents published by the newspaper.
Although the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Brazil has already reached 2.5 million and more than 88.600 people have died from the disease, Bolsonaro has failed to declare a national lockdown. He has often tried to downplay the seriousness of the disease, having called it a “little flu.” He still insists that chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine are effective to treat the disease, contradicting several studies that concluded the opposite.
Besides the healthcare emergency, the pandemic has also caused a grave economic crisis. The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean estimates that the Brazilian G.D.P. will decline by 9.2 percent this year.
The bishops’ letter touched on several of the problems facing Latin America’s most populous country.
“The document’s context is the pandemic and the extremely confusing actions of the government in such a difficult moment,” said Bishop Adriano Ciocca Vasino of the Prelature of São Félix do Araguaia, one of the signatories of the letter.
The bishops had intended to release the document on July 22, but decided to submit it first to the permanent council of the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB), which still hasn’t published a final version.
After reaffirming their evangelical mission and the need to build a “structurally fair, fraternal, and solidary society,” the letter presents a stark description of the current situation in the country.
“[Brazil faces] a combination of an unprecedented healthcare crisis with an overpowering economic collapse and a tension that affects the Republic’s foundations, largely provoked by the President of the Republic and other social segments, resulting in a profound political and governance crisis,” it reads.
The bishops mention the “anti-science speeches that try to naturalize or normalize the plague of thousands of deaths from COVID-19” and the “contempt for education, culture, healthcare, and diplomacy,” elements that have had tragic consequences for the “coordination of the [actions] to fight the pandemic.”
Making reference to the political landscape, the letter states that the crisis has demonstrated “the incapacity and inability of the Federal Government to face such crisis.” The bishops claim Bolsonaro’s recent liberalizing policies on labor and pensions have deteriorated the lives of the poor.
“An economy that insists on neo-liberalism in unsustainable, one that prioritizes the monopoly of small powerful groups at the expense of the large majority of the population,” the letter says.
The bishops accuse the government of having disdain for small businessmen, who are responsible for generating most jobs in Brazil, and privileging “financial groups that don’t produce anything.”
In one of the strongest parts of the text, the bishops affirm accuses the Federal Government of “coming close to totalitarianism and employing reprehensible tactics, such as the support and giving incentive to acts against democracy, the liberalizing of laws regarding the traffic and the use of guns by the population, and the appeal to suspicious communications activities, such as fake news, which mobilize masses of radical followers.”
The letter also deals with Bolsonaro’s support for Evangelicals in Brazil. Although he identifies as a Catholic, his wife is a neo-Pentecostal Christian and Bolsonaro often accompanies her to Evangelical church services. His Minister of Human Rights, Damares Alves, is a Protestant pastor, as well as his ministers of Justice and Education, who are both Presbyterian leaders.
Polls have consistently shown that the Evangelicals’ support to Bolsonaro remains high – 48 percent of them approve of his administration, while only about a third of Brazilians think he’s doing a good job.
“Even religion is used to manipulate feelings and beliefs, provoke divisions, spread hate, create tensions between churches and its leaders. It should be noted how pernicious is every association between religion and the power of the secular State, especially the association between fundamentalist religious groups and the conservation of authoritarian power,” the document continues.
The bishops conclude the letter by calling for a “broad national dialogue involving humanists, every person committed to democracy, social movements, men and women of good will, in order to reestablish the respect to the Constitution and to the rule of law.”
“We’re committed to the recent ‘Pact for life and for Brazil’ [a campaign created in April by the CNBB and other civil society organizations in order to face the crisis] and in tune with Pope Francis, who calls humanity to think on a new ‘Global Compact on Education’ and a new ‘Economy of Francis’ as well, as we’re united to ecclesial and popular movements which are seeking new and urgent alternatives for Brazil,” it concludes.
The list of signatories include bishops from all parts of Brazil, including Cardinal Claudio Hummes, Archbishop Leonardo Steiner, who acted as the CNBB secretary-general between 2011-2019 and is currently the archbishop of Manaus, and Bishop Mário Antônio da Silva, who is the bishop of Roraima and CNBB Vice President.
According to Bishop Flávio Giovenale of Cruzeiro do Sul, who is also one of its signatories, the letter originated during on-line meetings held during the crisis.
“We were worried about the fact that CNBB’s statements – which have been very appropriate, by the way – were not causing enough reverberation in national media and among the people,” he told Crux.
Giovenale said the signatories agreed that each bishop would release the letter in his diocese, with the eventual support from other bishops. It ended up being a collective declaration.
“It’s not, therefore, an official document issued by CNBB, but by a group of bishops – who reiterate, nevertheless, the ideas that CNBB has always expressed. Given that it’s a letter, we can use more direct language,” he said.
Bolsonaro and the CNBB have both refused to comment on the document.