SÃO PAULO – A visit by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to the Basilica of Our Lady of Aparecida on October 12 caused controversy in the South American country.

Bolsonaro, who will face former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in a runoff on Oct. 30, drew thousands of his supporters to the sanctuary on its feast day, and many viewed his presence as a campaign tactic.

Earlier this week, the Brazilian church released statements that indirectly criticized the electoral use of the feast of Our Lady of Aparecida.

On Oct. 10, after the Archdiocese of Aparecida was informed that the president would attend one of the Masses at the basilica, Archbishop Orlando Brandes published a letter saying that the “National Shrine would organize a reception for the president according to the best practices required by a head of state,” but emphasized that the church would also “guarantee that the routine of the pilgrims would not suffer any impact” due to Bolsonaro’s attendance.

“With the best expectations that the Feast of the Patroness of Brazil will be a time of honoring Jesus and his Mother, we hope that the devotees can fully experience the moments that were planned for them,” the statement read.

On Oct. 11, the bishops’ conference released a note complaining about the “intensification of the exploitation of faith and of religion as a way of obtaining votes in the second round of the election.”

“Specifically religious moments cannot be used by candidates to present their campaign proposals and other election-related matters. Thus, the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB) regrets and disapproves of such actions and behaviors,” the statement said.

Since the beginning of the presidential campaign in August, the incumbent has been portraying the race as one between good and evil and associating Lula to atheist Communism and even Satanic practices.

Bolsonaro’s wife Michelle, a member of a Baptist church in Brazil, has been playing a central role in his campaign’s “holy war” against the political left, giving political speeches during Evangelical church services.

Observers say Bolsonaro’s visit to Aparecida was a symbolic gesture that could please his Catholic backers. Indeed, his presence attracted many of his supporters.

“I was there with my family because of our Patroness. We did not know the president would be there. There was a different movement, with people wearing the Brazilian [national soccer team] jersey,” said Larissa Oliveira, 29, who lives in the city of Taboão da Serra, in the São Paulo metropolitan area, and travels to Aparecida every year on Oct. 12 to attend the Mass.

“It does not make any sense to involve politics with someone’s faith. I do not like that. It was a cringeworthy moment when he arrived. People started shouting and applauding, something completely inappropriate for that moment and place,” Oliveira added.

Bolsonaro arrived early afternoon. His entourage first paraded in the open area in front of the church – he was standing in a car, leaning out an open window, and waving to supporters as the vehicle moved slowly through the area.

After that, he went into the church to cheers. According to a story published by the news website UOL, Bolsonaro didn’t take communion and remained silent.

Oliveira said his supporters, on the other hand, had to be admonished by the priests several times to be quiet.

“Some of the people complained about his backers’ attitude and told them that was not the right place for that, but those people apparently live on another planet,” she said.

After the Mass, Bolsonaro went to a visitors’ area in the shrine and took pictures with his supporters. Videos show high numbers of people circulating in front of the church with Brazilian flags and other national symbols.

Later at a rosary in another part of the city, where the “old” basilica is located, scuffles broke out between Bolsonaro’s supporters and other pilgrims.

A Brazilian CNN reporter was live on air when some Bolsonaro supporters attacked a TV crew. Journalists of TV Aparecida, a church-run TV station, tried to defend the other news team and were also attacked.

Such clips, along with others showing Bolsonaro’s supporters booing a priest during the homily – when he allegedly mentioned the current social problems in Brazil – were widely circulated on social media.

“All of that was a demonstration of the Bolsonaro campaign’s barbarism, which at all costs wants to instrumentalize faith,” said Father Rodrigo Schüler de Souza, a member of the group Priests against Fascism, which includes hundreds of clergy members.

“Fortunately, we saw that the sanctuary, being a mystical place, does not admit such atrocities – what prevailed was the pilgrim people’s faith,” he added.

Lula’s campaign had also prepared to visit the basilica on Oct. 12, and many feared clashes between the supporters of both candidates, given the highly politically charged atmosphere in Brazil during the campaign.

In the end, the former president didn’t visit the basilica, and instead visited a favela, poor neighborhood, in Rio de Janeiro and took part in a rally in Salvador. During a speech, Lula emphasized that his opponent has been continually using religion for politics.

Catholic theologian Jung Mo Sung, a professor of religious studies at the Methodist University of São Paulo, said it would be advisable for a candidate to visit Aparecida on the feast day “only if the person is a known devotee – but, even so, without making any political declaration.”

“The most desirable relation between religion and political life is the one seated on social ethic values – not on party politics,” Sung said, adding that he thinks “Lula was right for choosing not to go to Aparecida.”

For many traditionalist Catholics, however, Bolsonaro did nothing wrong.

“Leftist Catholics have always campaigned for leftist parties. Bolsonaro is a conservative candidate with an agenda that is similar to the church’s agenda. He went there to pray, which is a good act,” said Frederico Viotti, a member of the Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira Insititute (IPCO), an association created by former members of the Brazilian Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property.

“We hope that Bolsonaro’s act bear fruits and that he becomes more and more a champion of the families and of the church’s social doctrine,” Viotti said.