São Paulo – Awkward religious ideas have spread after unprecedented floods devastated 90 percent of the cities in Rio Grande do Sul state earlier this month.

The flooding has displaced more than 700,000 residents and killed at least 161 more.

Since the beginning of the catastrophe in the southernmost region in Brazil, which impacted 2.3 million people and left the capital city Porto Alegre underwater for several days, several Christian leaders have tried to establish a relationship between human behaviors and the wrath of God, which they said was behind the heavy storms.

The most unusual of such theories was the one that blamed popstar Madonna, who held a free concert on May 4 on Copacabana beach, in Rio de Janeiro.

Several Evangelical pastors and influencers posted videos on social media in which they argued that her concert was in fact a satanic ritual, something they tried to demonstrate by showing scenes of the event in which Madonna desecrated Christian symbols.

The numerous allusions to sexual acts made by Madonna and other artists on stage further contributed to the theory that her concert enraged God. Prominent Christian leaders said her show, which was broadcasted by the major TV station in Brazil and was watched by millions, was connected to the events in Rio Grande do Sul.

While those were the most extreme examples, several others have come out.

Father Marco Antônio Leal of Novo Hamburgo, one of the most impacted cities in Rio Grande do Sul, asked online if the rains and floods carried some kind of divine message.

“Rio Grande do Sul, according to [survey’s] data, is the most atheist state in Brazil, many times carried away by its intellectual and economic pride. God wants the people from the state to kneel down and believe in Him again,” he said in the clip.

Earlier this week, the video of another priest talking about the catastrophe went viral in Brazil. Father Paulo Santos da Silva of Nova Andradina, a city in Mato Grosso do Sul state, was seen during a homily saying “Rio Grande do Sul adopted witchcraft and satanism a long time ago,” and is now “far away from God.”

“God doesn’t need to send suffering to our lives, he doesn’t do so. But at times we are the ones who look for, in our human fragility, bad things for ourselves,” da Silva said.

He goes on by saying that the people from Rio Grande do Sul lost their “spiritual strength.”

“Secularism has taken over Rio Grande do Sul, the most atheist state in the federation. There are more macumba centers in the city of Porto Alegre than in the whole Bahia state,” he said, using a derogatory term for the Brazilian religions of African origin, especially Umbanda and Candomblé. Both of them have been historically discriminated against by Christians, being usually associated with the devil.

Both videos were controversial.

Da Silva was denounced by a congressman to the prosecutors’ office for his remarks and is now under investigation.

Auxiliary Bishop Joaquim Mol Guimarães of Belo Horizonte, who headed the Bishops’ Conference’s Communications Commission and led a study on Catholic digital influencers, said the idea of God punishing people who don’t profess the Christian faith or who don’t have any religion at all is “intolerant.”

“People who think that adherents of African Brazilian religions and atheists deserve God’s wrath don’t respect diversity and aren’t compassionate,” Guimarães told Crux.

“God is omnipotent, so many people think that he can just drown an entire population. But God is entirely love and entirely forgiving. He suffers along with everybody who suffers. The God of Jesus is not the God of punishment,” he said.

Guimarães said that such “divine punishment” doesn’t have God’s love at its center, but on the contrary is based on a “pessimistic conception of the human being, one that places people as decadent and sinful.”

“Those two priests should reflect on how we have been treating the environment. That climatic disaster is the result of a set of forces generated by the aggressions on nature,” Guimarães said.

For Alzirinha Souza, who holds a Ph.D. in Theology from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium and is one of the authors of the research led by Guimarães on Catholic influencers, Leal and da Silva chose to ignore the responsibility of a number of real life causes for the crisis in Rio Grande do Sul, like the agribusiness, which devastated vast areas, and the local government, that failed to adequately regulate its operations and couldn’t prevent the catastrophe.

“They preferred instead to say that God made it happen, implying that nothing could have been done. That’s a way of taking out the focus from the real perpetrators,” she told Crux.

Souza emphasized that several scientists had been warning the authorities for years that climate change would create very complex scenarios.

Laudato Si’ [a papal document on the environment] talked about it and many scientists talked about it, but nothing changed. Now that it began to happen, those people are saying that it was God’s will,” she said.

Souza said she believes that there’s also an element of religious manipulation in that kind of reasoning, one that uses fear, morality, and guilt in order to draw faithful people and convince them of certain ideas with the goal of keeping them under their influence.

“That’s the so-called theology of domination. In the case with Catholicism, the result is a religious practice with plenty of formulas and devotions, but with scarce understanding of the Gospel,” she said.

She said a God of punishment and vengeance is very distant from Jesus’s image, and is what emerges from such a rhetoric.

“Unfortunately, many people listen to that kind of idea and identify with it. Those who have any level of lucidity end up angered about it. The hierarchy has been failing to address such an issue,” she added.

Indeed, Bishop João Francisco Salm of Novo Hamburgo, the direct superior of Leal, told Crux the discussion of the priest’s message could be a subject for the future, but not for now, when people are suffering with so many problems. It would only intensify the controversy, he said.

In Souza’s opinion, even discussing the priest’s comments later is “useless.”

“Failing to say something about those ideas is to agree with them,” she said.

Souza said that during calamities such as the one now happening in Rio Grande do Sul, people usually ask themselves where God is and how he could allow so many bad things to happen.

“We shouldn’t look for him in those places of hate and intolerance. He’s in the people who saved their neighbors or even unknown men and women, He’s in those who are struggling to rebuild the state,” she said.