SÃO PAULO – A reknowned Brazilian priest whose work with the poor has been explicitly endorsed by Pope Francis is now drawing fierce online blowback after attending a pro-Palestianian march in São Paulo last weekend.

Father Júlio Lancellotti, the Archdiocese of São Paulo’s vicar for the homeless, joined 7,000 protesters on November 4 to express solidarity with Palestinian victims of the conflict on the Gaza Strip.

The demonstration gathered members of Palestinian and Arab organizations in Brazil, human rights activists, and left-wing militants. Among banners condemning the Gaza attacks, a few messages with more radical content could be seen, including ones explicitly extolling Hamas.

Lancellotti gave a quick speech to the participants, saying that he was on the side of the “massacred, the little ones, the ones who are suffering a genocide.”

“Israel is not only a murderous state, but it’s also a cowardly state (…) Thank God, not every Jewish person and not every Israeli supports that murderous government, that government that kills and destroys the Palestinian people,” Lancellotti told the demonstrators.

Pictures of Lancellotti during the march as well as parts of his speech began to circulate on social media on the following days, drawing numerous comments from pro-Israel internet users.

On November 7, a letter with harsh criticism of Lancellotti’s participation in the march was released by the Left-Wing Zionist Jews group. The document was also signed by the Brazilian chapter of the left-wing Meretz party of Israel.

The authors state in the letter they were saddened to know that Lancellotti took part in a demonstration in which anti-Israel symbols were visible, including pro-Hamas flags and a banner in which a Star of David was combined with a swastika.

“Such a meaningful and active figure in the human rights movement is expected to show the same ardor in regard to the massacre of 1,400 Israelis [as he showed for the Palestinian victims],” the group said, adding that the whole story should be told, not “partial” and “offensive” fragments such as they assert Lancellotti did in the protest.

“We hope that Father Lancellotti comes to the public and denounces Hamas’s terrorism, recognizes Israel’s right to exist in peace and safety, and condemns the rising antisemitism all over the world, especially in Brazil,” the statement concluded.

As the letter went viral, many internet users attacked Lancellotti, accusing him of defending terrorists. Several users also alluded to his progressive political stances.

Being persecuted for his, at times, controversial positions is not something new for the 74-year-old Lancelloti, whose work with the homeless in São Paulo has led to numerous verbal attacks and threats over the past few years, especially from shop owners who feel mernaced by the presence of drug addicts and baggers in their neighborhoods and blame Lancellotti for it.

In 2019, the Organization of American States called for his protection after an especially intense wave of threats.

In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Lancellotti received a phone call from Pope Francis after sending him a letter detailing the plight of the homeless people in São Paulo, whose rights were intensely violated at that period. The pontiff demonstrated his support to Lancellotti’s work and gave his blessing to the poor in Brazil.

With the growing political polarization in Brazil since the 2018 presidential campaign, when far-right President Jair Bolsonaro was elected, Lancellotti has been continuously attacked by right-wingers who associate his social work with President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s Workers’ Party. The war in Gaza has added to the political divide in Brazil.

“I’ve been torpedoed with very violent messages. Especially on X, which is the most toxic of the social media platforms,” Lancellotti told Crux.

He said that Brazilian society has been going through a complex moment, with many rifts in all fronts, including the Church. The Middle Eastern conflict is also an intricate situation, he added, but it must be clear that “Palestinians are not Hamas, that not all victims were terrorists, and not all Israelis endorse the attacks.”

“Manipulation has been huge. Saying that those who struggle against the genocide [of Palestinians] are in favor of Hamas is a form of manipulation. What we can clearly see is that there is a genocide going on,” he said.

The bishops’ conference has not issued any statement yet regarding the controversy around Lancellotti. In general, the conference respects the local diocese’s authority to deal with such personnel matters, and given that the Archdiocese of São Paulo has not mentioned the incident, most observers expect the the national body to remain silent.

In fact, the Brazilian bishops have not yet mentioned the war in Gaza in any public declaration.

“Our personal desire is that the war immediately stops. But we cannot issue declarations on such a controversial subject without consulting more bishops. So we will discuss that problem in our upcoming permanent council’s meeting, on November 20,” Archbishop João Justino de Medeiros Silva of Goiânia, one of the conference’s vice presidents, told Crux.

Silva declared that he worries about the impact of the current confrontation on the minds of children and teenagers in Gaza. “How can we expect them to build peace after seeing their family members die?” he asked.

In the opinion of Francisco Borba Ribeiro Neto, director of the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo’s Center of Faith and Culture, the episcopate of a Latin American country such as Brazil does not have a relevant international position, so a statement would only impact its domestic public and could be misinterpreted by any side of the conflict.

“It’s a situation in which they can only lose. No matter what they say, somebody will criticize them,” Ribeiro Neto affirmed.