SÃO PAULO – In the final days of Brazil’s presidential campaign, the politically charged atmosphere continues to generate divisions inside churches, including within Catholicism.
Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been leading all polls since the beginning of the campaign. The most recent survey demonstrated that he has slightly more than 50 percent support, which means that he could be elected in the first round without the need to face the second-place finisher, expected to be incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro, in a second round.
To steal some of Lula’s votes, Bolsonaro’s campaign has been using all means available, one of which has been to portray left-winger Lula as an atheist Communist who will persecute Christians in his tenure like Nicaragua’s leader Daniel Ortega has been doing. The historic ties between Lula’s Workers’ Party (known as PT) and the Sandinistas have been continually emphasized.
Such rhetoric has been one of the major elements in the support demonstrated by some priests for Bolsonaro’s re-election.
On September 23, Bolsonaro visited the city of Divinópolis, in Minas Gerais State, and attended a Mass. Accompanied by two other priests, Father Adriano Bolognani praised the president’s administration and showed outright adherence to his campaign.
“We are very, very proud indeed of you, sir. Of your work for the majority of this country’s population, for the law-abiding men, […] for those who want freedom of speech, for those who want religious freedom. We are with you, sir,” he told the president.
After a video of that celebration went viral on the internet, Bishop José Carlos of Divinópolis took to the diocese’s social media to publish a series of recommendations for the campaign period, including one about “electoral publicity in the church.”
“If there is any signal of electoral publicity in the church or nearby, both the candidate and the parish can be fined by the Electoral Justice Commission. Everyone should zeal for what is right and denounce those situations to the Electoral Justice,” the statement said.
In another statement, the bishop emphasized that the church does not support any candidate nor does it “authorize any candidate or his backers to use the name of the church or its image.”
“Whoever does that, in the clergy and out of it, will be in clear disobedience and disrespect, doing a great disservice for the mission of the church’s communion,” the document read.
The fear of religious persecution by leftists has ancient roots in Brazilian Catholicism, explained Francisco Borba Ribeiro Neto, the director of the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo’s Center of Faith and Culture.
“There was in the 20th century an objective threat posed by atheist Communists. Even now, the church faces difficulties in countries like China and Cuba. The Catholic right wing has always explored that idea in Brazil, especially during the Military dictatorship [1964-1985],” he told Crux.
More recently, the Brazilian equivalent of the alt-right has strongly publicized the concept of “cultural Marxism,” continued Ribeiro Neto, and that idea intentionally confounds the traditional left that advocated dictatorship, and the new left, that supports democracy.
“The Sandinistas are a remnant of the Latin American Marxist movement, along with the Cuban and the Venezuelan regimes. That is not the Brazilian – nor PT’s – reality,” Ribeiro Neto argued.
In his opinion, “Bolsonaro is much closer to the traditional Latin American dictatorial strategy, one which suffocates liberty little by little.”
Over the past few days, the president gained a great partner in his campaign to accuse Lula of being an aspiring anti-Christian dictator. After one of Bolsonaro’s great political allies, Roberto Jefferson, was impeded to run for the presidency due to legal reasons, another member of Jefferson’s party was chosen, a man named Kelmon Souza.
Known as “Padre” (Father) Kelmon, he claims to be an Orthodox priest and always wears a cassock and a large crucifix. Several historical Orthodox churches in Brazil, however, denied that Kelmon is connected to them. On Sept. 30, the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (known as CNBB) also released a statement saying that Padre Kelmon is not a Catholic priest.
After being questioned by journalists on several occasions, he said that he is a member of a Peruvian institution named the Orthodox Catholic Apostolic Church of Peru, which is not recognized by the Orthodox community.
In all his public appearances and in televised debates, Kelmon has been particularly aggressive about targeting Lula and accusing him of planning to implement an anti-religious dictatorship in Brazil. Citations of Nicaragua are omnipresent in his speech.
Kelmon has not been mentioned in any poll, and his candidacy is largely considered an offshoot of Bolsonaro’s campaign.
In the final presidential debate aired by TV Globo – Brazil’s major television network – on Sept. 29, Kelmon used most of his time to attack Lula and to talk about religion.
According to Bishop Emeritus Mauro Morelli of Duque de Caxias, a longtime human rights advocate who has been friends with Lula since the 1970s, the former president has always been Catholic, and his political trajectory has deep connections to the church.
Indeed, PT was created in 1980 as an alliance between labor union leaders like Lula, social activists, and progressive Catholics, in many cases close to the once strong liberation theology movement.
“Lula is the real candidate for those who follow the triad ‘God, Fatherland, and Family’ [the Mussolini slogan which was adopted by Bolsonaro],” he told Crux, claiming that he has always been a religious man, has always respected and honored his mother and wife, and has made great efforts to develop his country during his previous tenures in the presidency (2003-2010).