By Alba Santandreu
Sao Paulo, Oct 25 (EFE).- Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and ex-head of state Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva are engaged in an all-out battle to woo religious voters ahead of Sunday’s runoff election.
Although religion has always been a factor in Brazilian politics, it has taken center stage in the current election cycle due to the rising power of evangelicals, who now account for roughly 30 percent of the country’s electorate.
Evangelicals helped carry the rightist Bolsonaro to power in 2018, and the incumbent has been trying to court them once again with numerous visits to churches on the campaign trail.
Bolsonaro, a Catholic, is usually accompanied on those visits by first lady Michelle Bolsonaro, a devout evangelical who calls herself a “servant of the Lord” and has promised the faithful the presence of “Jesus Christ in the government” if her husband is re-elected for a second term.
Lula, aware of evangelicals’ power and influence inside and outside politics, has sought for his part to wrest away the “God and family” banner from Bolsonaro during the final stretch of the campaign.
To that end, the former two-term president has surrounded himself in recent weeks with friars, monks, priests and evangelical pastors, kissed images of saints, intoned religious chants and prayed and received blessings.
The goal is to showcase his own faith and fight back against the “communist” label his detractors have tried to pin on him.
To try to win over more evangelical voters, the leader of the center-left Workers’ Party (PT) issued an open letter to evangelicals last week in which he pledged to respect religious freedoms and expressed his commitment to the family.
Abortion, however, is a complicated issue for Lula, who has been the frontrunner throughout the campaign but won the first round of voting by a surprisingly narrow margin of just 48.4 percent to Bolsonaro’s 43.2 percent.
The candidate has stated his personal opposition to that medical practice, although just a few months ago he said the voluntary interruption of a woman’s pregnancy is a “matter of public health.”
The Bolsonaro campaign seized upon that latter remark to argue that Lula would seek to loosen abortion restrictions in Brazil, where that practice is only legal in cases of rape, when a woman’s life is in danger or when the fetus suffers from anencephaly – a fatal congenital brain disorder.
Lula’s letter, however, was rejected out of hand by some of Brazil’s most influential evangelical leaders, including controversial televangelist Silas Malafaia, who has helped spread the unfounded rumor that the leftist candidate will shut down churches if he returns to power.
Misinformation has been going viral on social media ahead of the runoff, with Bolsonaro supporters accusing Lula of making pacts with the devil and the opposition trying to link Bolsonaro with Freemasonry, a fraternity that evangelicals and Catholics associate with Satan and cannibalism.
Brazilian bishops, for their part, have vehemently condemned the use of religion as a campaign cudgel ahead of the runoff.
Tensions surrounding religion and the election are running so high that the archbishop of Sao Paulo, Cardinal Odilo Scherer, was even accused of supporting the PT (whose colors are red and white) because his profile photo on Twitter shows him dressed in his traditional red.
Under attack, Scherer explained on Twitter on Oct. 16 that cardinals wear blood-red robes to symbolize their willingness to be martyred for their faith.
He also professed his belief in God and his opposition to abortion.
“What strange times these are!” he tweeted. “I know quite a lot of history. Sometimes I seem to be reliving the times of the rise to power of totalitarian regimes, especially fascism. We need a lot of calm and discernment at the moment.”