SÃO PAULO – The first round of the presidential election in Brazil on Oct. 2, ended up with a surprisingly positive result for conservative President Jair Bolsonaro.

Polls showed that former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva could obtain more than 50 percent of the vote and be elected without a runoff. However, he got 48.4 percent of the votes, while the incumbent received 43.2 percent, exceeding expectations.

Another letdown for Lula’s supporters was the election of several of Bolsonaro’s allies to Congress and as state governors, largely with the help of Evangelical voters. The incumbent’s strategy of portraying the current race as a type of holy war between his Christian backers and Lula’s “atheist” and “communist” constituency seemed to play a part in his success.

Maybe that is why both campaigns have been strongly focusing on religion since Sunday. This week, Bolsonaro has met with Evangelical leaders and attended an Assembly of God conference in São Paulo. On the internet, a new wave of popular Christian figures has been declaring support to his campaign, and accusations that Lula plans on “persecuting Christians” have continued.

Lula’s campaign has also begun attacking his opponent for religious reasons. On Oct. 4, social media was flooded with videos and photos of Bolsonaro during an event at a Masonic lodge in 2017. The footage was accompanied by texts accusing him of being a Freemason, “something that is expressly forbidden by the church’s canon law.”

One of the pictures was digitally manipulated to include Bolsonaro near a painting of Baphomet, a demonic entity associated with the occult, trying to associate the president with satanic rituals.

The new strategy has also highlighted an interview Bolsonaro gave in 2000, where he said abortion should be “the couple’s decision” and described how he had dealt with such a decision in the past.

He told his interviewer that he let his partner decide it and that she chose to keep the baby – who is his fourth son, Jair Renan, now 24 years old. Since his first presidential campaign, in 2018, Bolsonaro has opposed decriminalizing abortion in Brazil.

While his campaign’s attacks had the clear goal of raising doubts among Bolsonaro’s conservative Christian voters, Lula has been continuing to highlight his ties to progressive Catholic organizations.

The left-wing politician met with Franciscan friars at his Workers’ Party (PT) headquarters to celebrate the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi on Oct. 4. The group included the provincial superior of the Franciscans in Brazil, Father Paulo Roberto Pereira, and the longtime Black rights advocate Father David Santos.

The Franciscans talked and prayed with Lula. They also declared their support for his election, despite the country’s bishops’ conference telling clergy not to endorse candidates.

“I am sure that Lula, with his enduring friendship with my [Franciscan] brothers Cardinal Cláudio Hummes and Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns and with his intimacy with the [Liberation Theology-inspired] Basic Ecclesial Communities, is the closest candidate to the original Christianity, the Christianity of the Sermon on the Mount,” Santos told Crux.

Santos said that he and his colleagues gave him the blessing of Saint Francis and also discussed the current political situation in Brazil. Lula claimed that many Brazilians have been unfair to him – particularly when it comes to his religious identity – but that he hopes that justice will prevail.

“We have to recognize that the evangelization, both among Evangelicals and among Catholics, has been, many times, superficial. True Christians should not believe in ill-prepared pastors and in fake news,” Santos said.

Travis Knoll, an expert in Liberation Theology in Brazil and in its connections to racial issues, said the charges of atheism against Lula stem from a sympathy he “had with the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions and their anti-imperialist goals, though often diverging in tactics.”

“But, while  Cuba outlawed Christian participation in the government for decades,” Lula’s background is completely different, said Knoll, who teaches at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

“He comes from an independent trade union movement that benefited greatly from the support of prominent bishops. There is every reason to believe Lula has a strong commitment to his faith,” he told Crux.

Knoll argued that there is a message in the fact that Lula looked to meet with Santos, the founder of the non-governmental organization Educafro, that works for the rights of Brazil’s poor Black community.

“It shows that Lula is putting race, education, and social mobility at the center of his religious message,” he said.

“Lula’s ‘faith’ message argues the Catholic Church is most authentic when it is actively working for ‘the least of these’, actively supporting education for the marginalized, and actively promoting religious liberty and racial equality,” Knoll continued.

Lula may be winning the religious contest in Brazil: The most recent poll, released on October 5, showed him ahead of Bolsonaro with 55 percent of the expected vote.