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SÃO PAULO – Auxiliary Bishop Vicente de Paula Ferreira of the Archdiocese of Belo Horizonte was threatened by an armed man after a Mass on November 12 in the suburban city of Moeda, in a sign of the political violence facing members of the clergy in Brazil.
Since former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva beat incumbent Jair Bolsonaro in a run-off vote on Oct. 30, similar incidents have taken place in different parts of the country.
Ferreira, an outspoken critic of the rightwing Bolsonaro, left the church after Mass and was approached by a stranger who reportedly was not part of the parish. The Brazilian press reported that the perpetrator is allegedly a Bolsonaro supporter.
Archbishop Walmor Oliveira de Azevedo, who is also the President of the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB), released a statement in which he said that Ferreira was a “victim of intolerance, of the lack of a minimal sense of conviviality, of cowardly disrespect.”
“Judicial measures are already being taken so that the hostilities aimed at a servant of the Gospel, in the exercise of his mission, will not remain unpunished,” de Azevedo said in the statement.
Although the presidential election is now over, the political battles are continuing in Latin America’s most populous nation.
Many of Bolsonaro’s supporters refuse to accept the results of the election, and accuse the Superior Electoral Court of having committed fraud in favor of Lula. However, no evidence of voting irregularity has been provided.
Shortly after the result was announced, groups of Bolsonarists organized dozens of blockades on highways across the country, which were finally cleared on Nov. 10. In addition, several supporters of Bolsonaro are camping in front of military bases in different cities and asking the armed forces to stage a coup d’état.
The Catholic Church has not been immune to the political disturbances. Since the presidential campaign began, there have been numerous cases of churchgoers interrupting Masses and accusing clergy of supporting Lula.
Although Bolsonaro is a Catholic, he receives the bulk of his support from Brazil’s growing Evangelical and Pentecostal congregations, and his supporters often accuse the Catholic Church – and especially the country’s bishops’ conference – of having a leftwing bias.
At the same time, there are many bishops and priests who have openly supported the aims of the Bolsonaro administration, especially when it comes to his pro-life support.
However, since Lula’s victory in the runoff, it has been the Bolsonaro supporters most responsible for threats against Catholic clergy. Over the past week, there have been at least two death threats directed to members of the Church, not including the threat made against Ferreira.
In the city of Sidrolândia, in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, a mostly Bolsonarist community told a priest to leave the parish in which he has worked over the past six years. During the presidential campaign, the cleric announced he would vote for Lula.
Local newspaper Correio do Estado reported that the priest asked to remain anonymous due to the death threats.
In Rio Grande do Sul State, Franciscan Brother Sérgio Görgen, a long-time small farmers’ advocate who ran for the State legislature as a member of Lula’s Workers’ Party, received a death threat from a local politician on November 7.
During his campaign, Görgen released a video in which he appeared in front of Santa Elmira farm, where in 1989 he and dozens of landless peasants promoted a land occupation. The large estate was unproductive, which according to Brazilian law meant it could be expropriated by the government in its land reform scheme.
But the 1989 protest was violently suppressed by the police in a raid that resulted in 17 people being injured and 23 arrested. In his campaign video, Görgen briefly told the story of the so-called “Santa Elmira massacre” and said that he hoped that the property would one day be subject to land reform.
José Sérgio de Carvalho, a council member in the city of Salto do Jacuí, where the farm is located, mentioned Görgen’s video during an official council session, saying “nobody should be surprised if someone gives a big shot in the friar’s head,” adding that he was ready to be the person to do it.
“That threat is connected to the electoral moment. The most radical segments of the agribusiness are very dissatisfied [with Bolsonaro’s defeat],” Görgen told Crux. Large-scale agricultural enterprises were strong backers of Bolsonaro, who pledged to open up much of the Amazon region to development.
Görgen says people are now trying “to intimidate the progressive clergy in Brazil.”
“I feel threatened, but someone who took a mission like mine must be ready to face such situation. My bishop [of the Diocese of Bagé] showed solidarity to me, as well as many Catholic movements,” he said
Over the past weeks, conflicts caused by Bolsonarist priests were also reported by the Brazilian media.
On November 6, a priest in Nerópolis, in Goiás State, had an argument with a group of lay people during Mass. According to a witness, Father Danilo Neto told the churchgoers who voted for Lula to leave the Church, reported the news website G1.
A video of the moment went viral on the internet. The priest is seen speaking with a woman, who allegedly had criticized him for telling Lula’s backers to leave. Neto then said he would leave the place, given that the churchgoers “do not need a priest.” He took off his cassock, threw it on a bench and left the church.
The Diocese of Anápolis stated that the case was being investigated and reaffirmed the neutrality of the Church in party politics.
In Paraná State, a priest was photographed taking part in one of the highway blockades protesting Lula’s victory. The Diocese of Jacarezinho said on Nov. 10 that Father Carlos Eduardo Casprov has been reprimanded by Bishop Antônio Braz Benevente.
Benevente’s statement also noted this was the second time that Casprov engaged in political activism: He had already been reprimanded on April 14.
João Décio Passos, a professor of Religion Studies at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo, said both Catholic Pentecostalism and Traditionalism had been advancing – and converged with the support to Bolsonaro since his 2018 campaign.
“Such groups have some media outlets and a strong social media presence. They tend to be self-referential and to break with the Catholic Church’s official guidance,” Passos told Crux.
That movement created politically conservative pockets in the Brazilian Church, which tends to be moderately progressive.
“The novelty in the current picture is that those pockets have taken an autonomous existence and broke with the ecclesial consensus in the name of its own perspectives,” Passos said.
Mário Betiato, a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Paraná in Curitiba, said the Brazilian bishops should speak out more.
“Neo-fascism has been creating rifts not only in the Church, but also in education, in communications, in the families. Its major figure is Bolsonaro. The Church is failing to take action in order to manage such ruptures,” he told Crux.
Betiato argued that “the bishops are not taking a public stance [against Neo-fascism]” and thus the “Church is on the brink of a schism.”
He blames “a poor theological formation” for the adherence of priests and lay Catholics to Bolsonarism.
“They are not managing to accompany the Church. They do not want to debate faith and its interfaces with science and culture, they do not want to debate the women’s role. They just want to fight ‘communism’ and to be applauded,” he said.
This article has been edited to show that the Santa Elmira farm was unproductive at the time it was occupied.