SÃO PAULO – A Catholic priest’s visit to jailed demonstrators accused of having stormed and vandalized government buildings in Brasília, and of planning a coup d’état on January 8, has spurred controversy among Catholics in Brazil.

More than 1,800 people were arrested and taken to a federal police facility after a violent protest was promoted by supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro at the Esplanade of Ministries.

Dissatisfied with President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s electoral victory in October and claiming the voting machines were fraudulent, thousands of Bolsonaro’s backers had been camping in front of army barracks demanding a military coup over the past three months.

On January 8, buses from all over the country delivered hundreds of additional demonstrators to Brasília. Part of the group that was camping in front of the Army headquarters joined them and formed a mob that invaded the Senate and part of the Chamber of Deputies, the Supreme Court, and the presidential palace.

They not only broke glasses, windows, doors, furniture, and equipment, but also works of art that were exhibited at those places. The cost to repair the Congress building alone has been estimated at $1.4 million. Sculptures and paintings created by important artists such as painter Emiliano di Cavalcanti and Italian-born sculptor Victor Brecheret were also vandalized, and cannot be repaired.

Beyond the property damages, the extremists’ movement was seen by many Brazilians as an attempt to create chaos in and provoke the military to launch an action against Lula’s administration and the Supreme Court. That would be the kickoff for a coup led by the Armed Forces to oust Lula and restore the right-wing’s power.

On January 10, Father Rogério Soares, O. de M., spent four hours at the police compound where the detainees were held while they waited to be heard by investigators.

“It was a very impacting experience. Most of the people were at least 40 years old, with many sexagenarians. Most of them were visibly poor people. They were very scared,” Soares told Crux.

While an important part of Bolsonaro’s constituency comprises Pentecostal and Neo-Pentecostal Evangelicals, Soares said that there were numerous Catholics in the group, and that many people came to him while he was there.

“They talked to me and prayed. Many of them were in a very turbulent psychological situation,” he described.

Soares said that part of the emotionally shocking atmosphere that he felt there was connected to the fact that many of the detainees were not told that they were under arrest.

“They were taken from the army headquarters’ camp on January 9 and put into buses. They thought they were going to be taken to a bus station. They did not understand they were going to jail,” he said, adding that even at the federal police compound they still had not received information.

“That procedure shocked me, as well as the fact that their individual conduct is not being considered. They are all being called ‘terrorists’, but I am sure that many of them were not involved in those acts,” Soares declared.

According to the priest, who is a longtime member of the Prison Pastoral Ministry in Brasília and regularly visits the local penitentiary, most of the people who were arrested were used as “puppets” by the real perpetrators of the incident.

“A collective psychosis was created among those people with fake news and disinformation. They really believe that communism will be implanted in Brazil [by Lula’s Workers’ Party] and that they need to save their country,” the priest said.

Soares affirmed that he asked many detainees if they knew that acts of vandalism would happen, and they told him they did not.

“They said that such actions were stimulated by a few people in the march. They think those people were infiltrated Workers’ Party militants,” Soares affirmed, adding that such claim is not credible.

After the hearings, 600 detainees were released due to humanitarian reasons including old age and health conditions. The others were sent to prisons.

Soares’s visit to the detainees was seen by many Brazilians, either Catholic or not, as a gesture of “political solidarity” with Bolsonaro’s extremist supporters. Hundreds of people criticized him and the Archdiocese of Brasília on social media, saying that “the Church should condone antidemocratic and violent movements” and that those people “do not deserve amnesty nor the Prison Pastoral Ministry.”

“I visit rapists, murderers, and corrupt politicians in prison every week. That is the charisma of my congregation and that is my mission,” Soares said.

German-born Sister Petra Pfaller, who coordinates the Prison Pastoral Ministry in Brazil, emphasized that the group’s goal is to “be present in prison, so it cannot ask an inmate about his or her innocence or about the crime they perpetrated.”

“We cannot judge, only attend everybody. We must leave our political creeds, our resentment, our hatred, and our will of judging outside the prison when we are visiting prisoners,” she told Crux.

Pfaller added that people must be held accountable for their deeds, but punitive measures aren’t the solution. Since the January 8 attempted coup, many Lula supporters have been demanding harsh convictions for the people involved in the incident. “No amnesty” has becomea common slogan among the left-wing.

“In my opinion, the camps in front of army barracks were absurd. And I am sure that Lula’s election did reflect the people’s will. I also consider that those demonstrators were at least imprudent. But we cannot confound justice and revenge and create an atmosphere of revanchism,” Soares said.

In his opinion, “only simple people were arrested, while the ones who organized and financed such acts remain free.”

Any punitive tendency, no matter who is being punished, is inconsistent with the Church’s social doctrine, argued Francisco Borba Ribeiro Neto, director of the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo’s Center of Faith and Culture.

“The Church will always accompany people regardless of their guilt, and will always defend their rights,” he affirmed.

Ribeiro Neto pointed out that most of those “simple, elderly people” went to Brasília because they were persuaded that they should combat a nonexistent enemy.

“If the Workers’ Party was to stage a leftist coup, the Armed Forces – which are mostly inclined to the right-wing in Brazil – would certainly act to prevent it. Those people suffered with disinformation, they were used,” he told Crux.

That does not mean that they must not be punished, “but that there are really dangerous people behind them that must be identified and judged,” Ribeiro Neto added.

In a message about the current political conflict in Brazil, Cardinal Paulo Cezar Costa, the Archbishop of Brasília, reaffirmed that it is part of the Church’s mission to visit detainees and prisoners, and affirmed that the perpetrators of criminal acts must be held accountable.

He also emphasized that the Brazilian society must be urgently pacified, echoing Pope Francis’s message on January 9 concerning the situation in the South American country. The pontiff affirmed that an exacerbated social and political polarization is a sign of a weakening democracy, and that such a process is not helpful to solve citizens’ problems.