SÃO PAULO – During a funeral Mass of a major figure in the Brazilian Church on August 28, a Muslim sheikh ended up receiving communion, sparking controversy among part of the local community and traditionalist Catholics all over Brazil, who called what happened a “sacrilege.”

Cardinal Geraldo Majella Agnelo, who played a central role in the Brazilian Church for several decades, died on August 26. He was the archbishop of Londrina, Paraná state, for many years, until he took over the Archdiocese of Salvador, becoming the primate of Brazil.

Agnelo, one of the founders of the Child Pastoral Ministry in Brazil, took part in the conclaves which elected Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. In his final years, after retirement, he moved back to Londrina.

Commemorations of his passing included several Masses, and the controversial incident occurred during one led by Archbishop Geremias Steinmetz, a couple of hours before Agnelo’s burial.

Footage of the Mass, aired by the Cathedral of Londrina, showed Sheikh Ahmad Saleh Mahairi, a leading member of the Brazilian Sunni community and a long-time friend of Agnelo, approaching the altar to receive Communion. Steinmetz gave him the host and Mahairi did not put it in his mouth, walking with it in his hand.

The clip was reproduced by traditionalist websites, which questioned Steinmetz’s and Mahairi’s actions.

The Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira Institute, known as IPCO, is one of the groups that expressed criticism. Named after the founder of the Brazilian Society in Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, IPCO was created by former members of the group.

The group posted a video on YouTube in which it connected Steinmetz’s decision to give the host to the sheikh to a “general decline” of the Catholic Church in the world.

“Giving Communion to someone who has not been baptized, and who does not believe that Our Lord Jesus Christ is God, is a sacrilege,” said Frederico Viotti, a member of the IPCO.

Viotti recalled Saint Paul’s phrase in his letter to the Corinthians: “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord.”

“That is what the Church has always taught. But it appears that some people want to adapt the Church to some kind of universal fraternity, establishing a common ground for all religions – and now even Communion is allowed to non-Catholics,” Viotti said.

He added that the Church invites everyone for conversion, but in order to receive communion people have to be prepared.

Like Viotti, many people also worried about the fact that Mahairi left the altar carrying the host.

“You can never carry it inside of your pocket, for instance, because of Jesus Christ’s real presence in every particle of the host,” he said.

Two days later, Steinmetz released a statement in which he said that the sheikh was contacted by the archdiocese after the Mass.

“Deeply regretting what happened, as his desire was not to disrespect the Catholic Church, Sheikh Mahairi told the vicar that he received Jesus, went to his pew, sat down, and consumed the Eucharist,” the statement said.

Steinmetz described the connections between the Catholic faith and Islam in the document, emphasizing that Jesus is revered as a prophet by Muslims.

He also mentioned Pope Francis’s apostolic letter about liturgy Desiderio desideravi, in which he describes the true meaning of the Eucharist and invites Catholics to abandon “polemics to listen together to what the Spirit is saying to the Church.”

But the controversy endured, and many Catholic groups believe that Steinmetz failed to present any good reason to give the host to a non-Catholic.

German-born Bishop emeritus Franz Meinrad Merkel of Humaitá, in Amazonas state, told Crux that similar situations happened to him in the past.

“You are giving Communion, and then somebody appears who you know is not able to receive it. You do not want to refuse to give the host to that person… But I have already refused it, very discreetly, but I did,” he recalled.

That is a “human impulse”, Merkel said, suggesting that Steinmetz did not have enough time to reflect about it before giving the host to the sheikh.

“We should not give too much attention to this case. It was certainly a difficult moment for him,” he added.

“Islam has a completely different history and does not accept Jesus as God’s son. Believing in Jesus as a prophet is not enough to receive Communion the way the Church wants, and the way Jesus announced in the Last Supper,” Merkel said.

Others, however, don’t necessarily believe that Steinmetz made a mistake.

“Of course, according to the Church’s laws, something like that is not possible. But I ask myself if that ‘sin’ is so big or scandalous,” Bishop Adriano Ciocca Vasino of the Prelature of São Félix do Araguaia, in the Amazon, told Crux.

Italian-born Vasino recalled that Jesus himself broke several rules of religious purity.

“If we only analyze the events from a legal perspective, without taking into consideration the reality of the people, we will be always ready to criticize everybody,” he said.

Vasino said that nobody is “able to get into the sheikh’s heart and be conclusive about what happened, but he might have failed to understand what Communion was.”

“I think it is much worse when a person seeks Communion and has his or her heart full of resentment,” he said.

Sheikh Jihad Hammadeh, another prominent member of the Sunni community in Brazil, said that Mahairi probably did not understand that such a ritual was restricted to Catholics and followed the people to the altar “as a sign of respect.”

“I do not see any bad intention coming from him or from the archbishop – only from the ones who are criticizing them now,” Hammadeh told Crux.

He said that non-Muslims commonly make mistakes during celebrations in mosques, “like photographers who walk in front of the people who are praying.”

“I think we are lacking empathy. We should put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. If somebody is not part of a religion, errors will happen,” he said.