SÃO PAULO – A famed singer-songwriter from Brazil, who’s also a self-declared atheist, recently used an encounter with Pope Francis to appeal for help in dealing with a scourge of gang and drug violence in the country, which many critics see as exacerbated by heavy-handed responses from police.

Pope Francis met on September 28 with Brazilian singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso, one of the South American country’s major music stars, who is also known for his political activism. The eighty-one-year-old Veloso is in Europe to perform in a number of countries as part of his Meu Coco tour.

The meeting with Francis happened the day after his concert in Rome.

In the audience, Veloso and his wife, music producer Paula Lavigne, were blessed by the pope and then gave him a letter signed by the singer, which was later released on his social media.

In the document, he asks the pontiff’s help in dealing with rising violence in Brazil.

“Holy Father, in the city where I live, Rio de Janeiro, violence has attained rates comparable to the great wars in the world,” Veloso wrote.

“And it gets worse: It has been victimizing more and more children,” he wrote, mentioning by name 10 youths aged between 9 and 13 who were recently caught in the middle of shootings between drug traffickers and the police and ended up dying.

“The so-called ‘war on drugs’ till now has not reduced their commerce nor their use. But the number of young people, mostly Black, killed by gunfire continues to grow,” the letter read.

Veloso also described the situation in Bahia state, where he was born and raised, where more than 60 people have been killed during police raids in September, especially in poor neighborhoods.

“With that situation of intensification of violence in Brazil, I ask Your Holiness to pay attention to and to pray for our country. I am sure that your message of peace will be heard in the nation that has Our Lady of Aparecida as its patron saint,” he concluded.

Veloso rose to fame as a singer in the 1960s, when Brazil was ruled by a military junta which took over the country in 1964. Along with his sister, singer Maria Bethânia, and colleagues such as Gilberto Gil, Veloso was one of the creators of Tropicalismo, an artistic movement that combined traditional and popular art forms with avant-garde, international styles.

After being detained by the regime in 1969, he and Gil went into exile in London, where they remained until coming back to Brazil in 1972. Starting in the 1980s, Veloso’s international career gradually made him famous in Europe and the United States, with some of his recordings appearing in movies such as Pedro Almodóvar’s “Talk to Her” (2002).

Over the years, Veloso has received nine Latin Grammy Awards and two Grammy Awards.

His meeting with the pope surprised many in Brazil, given that Veloso has talked about his atheism on many occasions over the years. But last year something apparently changed. Veloso met with gospel singer and Baptist pastor Kleber Lucas and decided to record a song with him.

When he was asked during a TV show why he released a gospel song after so many decades estranged from religion, he answered: “I think it was [something done by] God.”

He also emphasized in other interviews that he was raised by a very pious Catholic mother – something that he also mentioned in the letter to the pope – and that he now does not feel “anti-religious” anymore. Veloso defined himself as a “post atheist” and a “Catholic of axé” – a reference to the sacred energy connected to each orisha, the deities revered in Candomblé, an African Brazilian religion very popular in Bahia state. Axé is also the name of a music style in Brazil.

In the opinion of Frei Betto, a Dominican priest and writer who is a leading figure in the liberation theology movement, “It is irrelevant if Veloso is not Christian and the Pope is.”

“I consider that meeting to be very important. Caetano and Pope Francis are allies in the same causes. They struggle together for human rights and the environment,” Frei Betto, who got to know Veloso in the 1960s, told Crux.

Leonardo Boff, a former Franciscan priest and another key figure in the liberation theology movement, echoed the point.

“It is not important if Caetano is Christian or not,” Boff told Crux. “What counts is his spirituality, which is that dimension of life in which a person places him or herself alongside the destitute, the poor, the marginalized and the abused.”

“The fact that he discussed the issue of violence in Bahia and of the children and young people killed on the outskirts of Rio with the Pope demonstrates this,” Boff said.

For Bishop Vicente Ferreira of Livramento de Nossa Senhora, who heads a bishops’ conference Commission for Social Change in Bahia, Veloso’s appeal to the pontiff concerning violence in Brazil “is something that directly addresses our most urgent problems” and demonstrates the singer’s connection “with Pope Francis’s message of defending life above all.”

“The authorities claim that those police killings are the result of armed conflicts with big criminal gangs that are trying to occupy more territories in Bahia. But we know that death is not a solution,” Ferreira reasoned, asking if “the state does not have any other means besides killing suspects, to combat the gangs and impede them to grow.”

“Pope Francis does not approve of death. He always says that we need another system, because this one is a system of death,” Ferreira said.

Ferreira said the Church will always insist that state actions to fight crime be reasonable and preserve life.

“Most of such conflicts occur in vulnerable districts and neighborhoods. We need governmental policies for the poor, not war,” he said.