SÃO PAULO – After a Brazilian archbishop criticized a legal argument aiming to limit land claims by indigenous groups, a Brazilian congressman introduced a motion to censure the prelate for allegedly promoting a leftist political agenda during a celebration of faith.

Congressman Evair Vieira de Melo, one of the leaders of the opposition to President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s government and the head of the Chamber of Deputies’ agriculture committee, introduced his petition on June 10, one day after a Mass marking the 10th anniversary of the canonization of Saint Joseph of Anchieta.

Archbishop João Justino de Medeiros Silva of Goiânia, one of the vice presidents of the Brazilian bishops’ conference, co-celebrated the Mass, which was a major event at the Sanctuary of Saint Joseph of Anchieta, located in Espírito Santo state.

The ceremony, which was broadcasted by the sanctuary’s TV station, began with a presentation of traditional dance and music by members of the indigenous Guarani people, who came from the Nova Esperança village for the event.

Anchieta, a Jesuit priest who came from Tenerife in 1553, is remembered for his tireless work among indigenous people in Brazil. One of the patron saints of the South American country, he devoted almost five decades of his life to spreading the Gospel among the indigenous inhabitants of the territory who had been colonized by the Portuguese.

Anchieta mastered Tupi, then the most spoken Indigenous language in the Brazilian coast, and published the first Tupi grammar in history. He also wrote and staged plays of religious nature in Tupi in order to establish a direct dialogue with the people. He is known for his fierce defense of the Indigenous groups’ dignity, opposing attempts of colonizers to enslave them.

Anchieta’s legacy was part of the inspiration for the 1986 film “The Mission,” based on the Jesuits’ service among the Guarani.

Only a few minutes after the Guarani artists’ presentation, Silva was called by the master of ceremonies to talk briefly about the event before the beginning of the Mass. He said the Guarani dance was a “very special moment of the celebration of the 10th anniversary of Saint Joseph of Anchieta’s canonization” and that the Indigenous peoples in Brazil have been facing the great challenge of “ensuring the official granting of their lands.”

“As a bishop of this Church and in the name of the bishops’ conference, once more I’d like to ask those who have the power to decide to not remove the Indigenous’ right to live in their lands. They’re the first inhabitants of this land of Brazil, which certainly has room for everybody,” he said.

Among other things, Silva directly mentioned the so-called “milestone legal thesis,” according to which only Indigenous groups occupying their traditional territories in 1988, when the current Brazilian constitution was promulgated, can now claim such lands from the government.

Recently, segments of the agribusiness sector and their allies in congress have been advancing the milestone thesis in order to restrict land grants. The thesis was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court last year, but shortly afterwards congress approved a law containing it.

Now, the Supreme Court has to analyze the new law. Until the court rules, the milestone thesis is in effect.

Although the Brazilian episcopate has expressed its opposition to the milestone thesis on several occasions, Congressman Vieira de Melo saw in Silva’s brief remarks – he was present at the ceremony – an inadequate expression of “political views” concerning the subject.

In his request for a censure, he said that Silva’s comments were not only “inappropriate, but also transgressed the sacredness of the event and disrespected the participants’ expectation of devotion.”

“The apparent leftist ideological tone in the declaration of the bishops’ conference’s vice president points to a worrisome manipulation of faith with political goals, contradicting the expected church mission of promoting universal spiritual and moral values without involving itself in political and party agendas,” Vieira de Melo’s request read.

The petition was approved on Jun. 12 by the agriculture committee, and a note of censure was issued against Archbishop Silva.

On his website, Vieira de Melo describes himself as an observant Catholic. He says he was a seminarian in his youth and acted as a diocesan coordinator of the Youth Pastoral Ministry.

“My family is an effective participant of the community where I work. My wife is a minister of the word and an eucharistic minister. Therefore, I’m talking about something that I know and that I experience,” he said.

The bishops’ conference should “understand that it must work as an institution and, if it refers to political themes, it has to do so in the academic sphere, not in the churches’ altars, where contradiction is not permitted,” Vieira de Melo said.

The clash with Silva echoes run-ins that former President Jair Bolsonaro, of whom Vieira de Melo is a close ally, had with the Brazilian episcopate on a number of occasions.

During his first presidential campaign in 2018, Bolsonaro called the bishops’ conference the “rotten part” of the Brazilian church. In 2019, during the preparatory works for the Synod for the Pan-Amazon region, his administration allegedly monitored ecclesial encounters.

Since then, the conference has become a regular target of Bolsonaro’s supporters in Brazil, who accuse the episcopate of being leftist and pro-Lula.

Last week, the conference’s Land Pastoral Commission (known as CPT) released a letter of support to Silva. The document emphasizes that his words were in accordance with a decades-old tradition of the Brazilian Church of defending the rights of Indigenous peoples and landless peasants.

“We ask Congressman Evair Vieira de Melo about what was he looking for in that religious festivity: Was he expecting to listen superficially to Saint Joseph of Anchieta’s deeds in the past, ignoring contemporary sufferings and struggles? This is not how church ministers dialogue with communities – disconnected from the context in which they live,” the letter read.

Carlos Lima, one of CPT’s national coordinators, echoed the point.

“The Gospel is not static. It hasn’t stopped in Jesus’s years. The Word keeps alive. When Archbishop Silva talked about the milestone thesis, he wasn’t politicizing the Word. He was contextualizing it,” Lima told Crux.

He added that since the 1970s the Brazilian Church has defended the landless peoples and struggled for land reform.

“Indigenous lands are the most preserved territories in Brazil. While other parts of the country have been suffering from fast deforestation, the Indigenous groups are taking care of the common house,” Lima said.

Jesuit Father Bruno Franguelli, who formerly was the vice rector of the Sanctuary of Saint Joseph of Anchieta, affirmed that the Church has always been side by side with the indigenous peoples in Brazil, since the times of Anchieta.

“He opposed their enslavement and always worked in their benefit. Obviously, Anchieta would never fail to oppose a bill aiming to restrict the Indigenous’ right to their lands,” Franguelli told Crux.