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SAO PAULO – Following the killing of a member of the Workers’ Party in Brazil (known as PT in Portuguese) by a supporter of President Jair Bolsonaro on July 9, the Brazilian Church is raising a red flag less than three months before a presidential election.

The highly polarized dispute between former left-wing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Bolsonaro, the current right-wing president, has been leading many to fear an increase in political violence in the South American country.

Marcelo Arruda, a city police officer and longtime labor union leader, was celebrating his birthday at the banquet hall of a recreation center in Foz do Iguaçu, Paraná State. A local treasurer of the PT, Arruda chose Lula da Silva as the theme of his party. PT symbols and pictures of the former president, who has been consistently leading polls for the October 2 election, decorated the place.

At some point, federal prison policeman Jorge Guaranho, one of the recreation center’s directors, arrived in his car playing loud pro-Bolsonaro music. According to witnesses, his wife and baby were sitting in the back while the man insulted Arruda and his guests and shouted pro-Bolsonaro slogans.

A quick argument between Arruda and the man ensued. Security footage shows that Arruda picked up small rocks from a garden and threw them at Guaranho, who then flashed a gun. Arruda’s wife, a civil police officer, intervened. Guaranho left, saying that he would be back.

A few minutes later, Guaranho is seen returning. He left his car and shot at the banquet hall two times. Security video inside the room shows a wobbling Arruda entering after being shot, while his wife tried to detain Guaranho, who fired again. On the floor, Arruda shot back a few times against Guaranho, who also fell.

Arruda was pronounced dead shortly after the arrival of paramedics, while Guaranho remains hospitalized in critical condition. Witnesses told police the two men did not know each other.

The murder sparked outrage among PT members, who organized homages to Arruda. Lula da Silva lamented his death on social media, blaming “intolerance” and the “hate speech incentivized by an irresponsible president.” He called for “democracy, dialogue, tolerance, and peace.” Lula da Silva also asked for “understanding and solidarity” with Guaranho’s family.

That was the most recent and serious incident to happen in the current presidential race, which is scheduled to officially begin in mid-August.

On June 15, the participants of a rally with Lula da Silva were hit by feces and urine thrown by drones in Uberlândia, Minas Gerais State. On July 7, a man exploded a homemade bomb filled with feces during a similar event in Rio de Janeiro. Arrests were made in connection to both incidents.

On July 6, a shot was fired at the headquarters of Folha de S. Paulo, a major newspaper in Brazil usually identified by Bolsonaro’s followers as part of the political opposition to him.

Worried about the escalation in political violence, the bishops’ conference (known as CNBB in Portuguese) called for peace on social media and released a statement approved by its permanent council on June 22.

“The insanity that transforms a birthday party, a moment of joy and fraternity, into a scenery of violence and death should not be a reference for the exercise of citizenship in Brazil,” affirmed Archbishop Walmor Oliveira de Azevedo of Belo Horizonte, CNBB’s president.

De Azevedo declared that “a more just, solidary, and fraternal country” demands “the union of everybody in a commitment to peace”, despite “political opinions, parties, differences.”

“’All Christians are called to engage in the building of a better world through dialogue and the culture of encounter, in a struggle for justice and peace,’ according to the guidance of the Brazilian episcopate, in a message presented in CNBB’s 59th General Assembly,” De Azevedo added.

Titled “A cry for peace”, the CNBB statement mentioned the large number of armed conflicts in the world and connected it to Brazil’s social problems.

“Social inequality generated by income concentration, religious conflicts, the systemic attack on traditional people’s territories, the contempt and the rejection of migrants, and the plague of famine are some of the forms of structural violence seen today,” the letter affirmed.

The bishops criticized the “insane arms race” currently happening in Brazil, “fed by fundamentalist speech – including of religious nature – that transforms opponents into enemies and damages fraternity.”

The text mentions that between 2018 and 2021, the number of hunters, shooters, and gun collectors increased 325 percent in Brazil, in a reference to Bolsonaro’s policy of loosening gun control.

The connection between political violence, social conflicts, and guns established by CNBB seem to be an indirect way of blaming Bolsonaro for the increasing hostility in Brazilian politics. Indeed, many analysts in Brazil have been emphasizing that Bolsonaro has been stoking hate speech and violence against the political left since the 2018 campaign.

After Arruda’s killing, several people on social media posted a picture of Bolsonaro during a rally in 2018 in which he is seen holding a tripod as if it were a rifle and shouting: “Let’s shoot the PT members.”

On July 11, when he was questioned about the influence that such statements may have on the political climate in Brazil, Bolsonaro told journalists that he used “figurative language” and repudiated violence – only to blame his adversaries once again for it.

“We hope that it [political violence] does not happen again, obviously. The election is polarized. But violence is not on my side. Lula defends criminals, kidnappers, cell phone robbers. I am not on the side of anyone who practices violence through politics,” he declared.

In the opinion of Francisco Borba Ribeiro Neto, the director of the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo’s Center of Faith and Culture, it is “undeniable” that Bolsonaro has been incentivizing political violence.

“A mentally disturbed person may understand Bolsonaro’s speech as an incentive to that kind of act. The man in Foz do Iguaçu probably thought that was what Bolsonaro wanted him to do,” he told Crux.

Ribeiro Neto argued that Bolsonaro’s “populist victory in 2018” led to an imbalance between conservatism and liberalism in Brazil, and the result was that “conservatives became aggressive.”

“The man in Foz do Iguaçu presented himself as a Christian pro-life activist on social media. How can a pro-life person kill another person? That is an obvious moral and logical contradiction,” he added.

Ribeiro Neto affirmed that “it is a complex landscape, one in which the Catholic Church has to act,” given that such contradiction “harms Christianity’s respectability.”

“It looks like a doctrinal incoherence. The church needs to recover the integrality of its social doctrine concerning violence by adopting and supporting effective measures. It needs a convincing speech of social pacification,” he concluded.