SÃO PAULO – A long-time advocate for the homeless people’s rights in the city of São Paulo, Father Júlio Lancellotti, received a note on the morning of August 27 containing insults and threats, something sadly familiar in the life of the 74-year-old priest.
Although the man who authored the note later claimed he did so under the influence of a combination of prescription drugs and alcohol that skewed his judgment, the torrent of reaction to the news nonetheless amounts to a sign that the political polarization in the South American country is an enduring problem 10 months after a tightly contested and divisive presidential election.
As the vicar for the homeless people in the Archdiocese of São Paulo, Lancellotti has been repeatedly attacked over the last decades for his unconditional support to the poor and his left-wing activism.
In the handwritten message, Lancellotti is called a “little f*g priest.” The attacker then asks him if he thinks “here [the parish] is a political party” and calls him an “advocate of criminals’ rights” and a “useless Workers’ Party militant.”
The Workers Party is the political movement of Brazil’s leftist president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
“[You] use the people to your advantage. Your days of reign here will be over. You can wait for that. Son of a b*,” the note said.
A social media post by Lancellotti reproducing the note drew 3 million views and was shared thousands of times. Several media outlets published stories about it, and the case was commented on by authorities on the same day.
Lula issued a statement of solidarity with Lancellotti on social media, saying that the priest had suffered “criminal and unacceptable threats.”
“A faithful follower of Jesus’s principles, Father Júlio Lancellotti is a reference in welcoming and taking care of the neediest ones, especially the homeless in the [São Paulo state] capital,” Lula said.
The president, who long has been close to progressive Catholics such as Lancellotti, added that it is about time to overcome “the culture of hatred in our country,” in what most Brazilian observers took as a reference to the tenure of former President Jair Bolsonaro.
The proliferation of comments on such posts, both supportive and criticial of Lancellotti, appeared to confirm that Brazilian society remains badly divided and that virtually any event can be exploited by the different parties in politcal fights.
One social media user, for example, accused Lancellotti of being a “priest who supports abortion, liberation of drugs, burglary and thieves.” Many claimed he was using the letter to turn himself into a victim, and some even asserted it was a fake.
On the night of Aug. 27, a 72-year-old man confessed to police that he was the one who left the letter for the priest. In an interview with the news website “Metropolis,” Wilson Aliano said that he wrote the note after having taken a medication for an ear infection and drinking beer, a combination he claimed had affected his judgment.
Aliano lives in the neighborhood where Lancellotti’s parish is located, and his family actually donated the parish church to the archdiocese in 1960.
“The priest’s work with the poor is commendable. One detail is that my family donated that church for religious worship, not for a political party environment. Good families used to attend the church and [have] ceased to do so,” Aliano said by way of explaining his note, according to “Metropolis.”
Aliano said that his intention was not to threaten the priest but to announce that he will look for legal ways of reversing the donation of the church, implying that it is not being currently used for religious activities.
Lancellotti told Crux that Aliano had been to the church a few days before the event and expressed discontent with the priest’s activities with the homeless.
“His explanation about mixing medicines and alcohol is strange. He could have given up doing so when he was writing it, when he was going to the church, and so on,” Lancellotti said.
He added that Aliano may not carry out any violent act against him, but his threats may “lead others to do so.”
This is not the first time the priest has been threatened. In 2019, after several threats against Lancellotti, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued a precautionary message regarding his case, including a call on national governments to take protective actions for people who are facing threats to their life or physical well-being.
“It will not be the last time, unfortunately. Those manifestations are expanding and are also visible on social media,” Lancellotti said.
Coincidentally, Lula’s administration announced August 28 that Lancellotti will be granted the highest commendation issued by the Ministry of Justice for his work with the homeless and his advocacy for human rights.
“I had been told about it by the ministry several days ago. The news came together with numerous messages of support coming from all parts of Brazil, so it felt like a wave of solidarity,” Lancellotti said.
Another fan of Lancellotti is Pope Francis, who called the priest in October 2020 to express support for his work with the homeless.
“Talking on the phone with Pope Francis was a very emotional moment, very beautiful, full of enthusiasm,” Lancellotti told Vatican News at the time.
“What perhaps has changed now is the visibility, because people came to know that Pope Francis calls those who are facing a challenge, a difficulty, or when he wants to convey an important message,” he said. “What he has transmitted to me is: ‘Take care of the poor, be together with them.’ And what he said to me: ‘Live with the poor, like Jesus’.”