SÃO PAULO – After being a victim of a campaign of insults and threats due to his work among the homeless in the city of São Paulo, Father Júlio Lancelotti received a phone call from Pope Francis on Oct. 10.

The pontiff asked Lancelotti about his daily work as the Archdiocese of São Paulo’s episcopal vicar for the homeless and told him that he had seen a few pictures of his activities that were sent to him.

“He said to me that the most important thing is to be with them [the poor], as Jesus did,” Lancelotti told Crux.

The Brazilian priest told Pope Francis about the current challenges he has been facing and the Pontiff said he shouldn’t get discouraged.

“He concluded the call by saying that he always prays for the homeless and told me to ask them to pray for him too,” Lancelotti continued.

The next day, in his reflection during the Angelus, Pope Francis mentioned the phone call, identifying Lancelotti as “an old priest” who “spent his life with the poor,” living his “old age in peace.”

“That’s our Mother Church, that’s God’s messenger that goes to the crossroads of the roads,” the Pope declared.

A long-time human rights advocate, Lancelotti’s social activism among the poor and drug addicts has made him many enemies, including members of the police forces which operate in the city.

Last year, the Organization of American States (OAS) called on the Brazilian government to secure his safety.

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Lancelotti’s critics argue that his work with the homeless perpetuate their presence in the central, historic areas of the city, driving down property values. A large proportion of São Paulo’s 25,000 homeless people live in the city’s historic center.

On Sept. 15, Lancelotti released a video on social media saying that he had been insulted by an unknown motorcyclist.

“A motorcycle passed by me and the guy said: ‘You sun of a b…, crackhead-protector priest.’ After some mayoral candidates have attacked me, I’m increasingly at risk,” the priest claimed in the video.

Lancelotti told Crux that several homeless people have recently been talking about motorcyclists shouting insults and issuing threats.

“The context of such attacks is the mayoral campaign in the city,” he said.

Brazilians will vote for mayor and city councilors on Nov. 15. In São Paulo, the area colloquially known as “Crackland” – an open-air drug market in the city center – has become an election issue, especially since it attracts addicts and homeless people.

Civil society organizations usually visit Crackland to distribute meals and medicine to the drug addicts. Catholic activists, like the ones belonging to Lancelotti’s Homeless Pastoral Commission, also work there. Police operations involving SWAT-type units using tear gas and other shock-and-awe tactics are common in the area.

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Shop owners and real estate developers have been complaining about the city’s mismanagement of Crackland for decades. Several projects to contain the “deterioration” of the area have been proposed in the past, and many business leaders claim the Church’s social work in the area is encouraging homeless people and addicts to stay.

Mayoral candidate Arthur do Val, a far-right digital influencer who was elected State legislator in 2018, has harshly criticized Lancelotti’s work on social media and in interviews to the press.

“What Father Júlio Lancelotti does is destructive for the city of São Paulo,” he told the Brazilian newspaper El País. In the same interview, he declared that “people believe that the priest knows [the Crackland] reality, but he doesn’t, he appears to give them food on behalf of non-governmental organizations, but he doesn’t solve the problem.”

“I doubt that the priest has ever taken a walk in Crackland,” Do Val told El País. However, Lancelotti’s pastoral commission has been continually working in Crackland and the priest has celebrated Mass there dozens of times.

Do Val’s statements added fuel to the fire in an already polarized election. As the arguments in favor of a hardline stance on the homeless population have become an increasing part of the campaign by the right in São Paulo, human rights activists, including Catholics, are being associated with the left-wing.

Lancelotti says the current political rhetoric doesn’t take into account the importance of the social work carried out by the Catholic Church among the homeless, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The number of cases on the street was not so great as it could be, in part because of the work that many organizations have been doing to raise awareness on prevention and to distribute food and hygiene kits,” he said.

Since Lancelotti released the video to denounce the intimidation campaign, he says the atmosphere of persecution of homeless people has grown.

“In this exact moment, we’re following a suspected case of poisoning of three homeless men who live in the historic center,” he told Crux during a phone call on October 12.

“The ones who stimulate violence aren’t the ones who will perpetrate it. They create favorable conditions for other people to commit violent acts,” he said.

Many social movements and members of the clergy – including the Archbishop of São Paulo, Cardinal Odilo Scherer – have been expressing solidarity with Lancelotti. The pope’s call, he said, was the peak of the wave of fraternal support he received.

“He had just released the encyclical Fratelli Tutti, which deals precisely with the need to share our lives with our brothers and sisters. His call was very significant for me,” the priest said.