Religion: The Pope joins battle in Brazil's own holy war

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The Independent Online
The Pope arrived this week in Brazil, ostensibly to push family values. Catholic church officials admit, however, that the pontiff is keen to stem the flow of Catholics to evangelical churches throughout Latin America.

As Phil Davison reports, both sides have called it a holy war.

Rio de Janeiro city authorities erased the offending red ink in time for Pope John Paul's arrival. But not before the defaced posters of the pontiff had shocked Brazilian Catholics.

At least half a dozen giant billboards erected to welcome the Pope on Thursday had gun sight targets painted in red over his heart. Others were covered in the sort of graffiti that are routine in Protestant areas of Belfast but would have been unthinkable during the pontiff's first visit to Brazil, South America's biggest Catholic country, in 1980.

Thousands of Brazilian troops and police fanned out through Rio's hillside favelas (slums) before the Pope's arrival, detaining drug gang leaders for the duration of the pontiff's four-day visit. Beggars, the homeless and street children were moved to temporary, supervised accommodation.

The authorities were concerned at John Paul's decision to travel past the favelas and to stay at the home of Rio Cardinal Eugenio Sales, perched on Sumare mountain amid seven poverty-drug-and violence- ridden shanty towns. Stray bullets from the slums killed 33 people last year.

But stray bullets were not the main concern of the 26,000 troops and police called in to protect the Pope. Catholic churchmen blamed the graffiti on "radical fundamentalists", widely seen as a reference to extremists among the growing American-style evangelical churches in Brazil and throughout Latin America.

More than half a million members of various evangelical churches held a noisy outdoor rally in the city of Sao Paulo on Sunday in a clear effort to upstage the hundreds of thousands now flocking to see the Pope in Rio.

Archbishop Lucas Moreira Neves said the anti-papal graffiti was aimed at provoking Catholics into a reaction and called on police to identify and arrest those who defaced the Pope's image. "Catholics are not bellicose, nor preoccupied with this holy war, but the lack of respect for our faith could prove a factor for reaction."

In 1970, 92 per cent of Brazilians considered themselves Catholics. By 1991, the figure was just above 80 per cent and may now be down to 75 per cent, pollsters say. Increasingly disillusioned with Vatican dogma in the face of the modern television world of soap operas, Brazilian Catholics have often become easy converts to evangelists who promise miracles and business success.

Recent surveys in Rio found 84 per cent favoured birth control, 76 per cent thought abortion should be permitted in cases of rape, 74 per cent thought priests should be allowed to marry and 54 per cent approved of non-marital sex. When the Pope came to Brazil in 1980, there were less than five million evangelical Christians. Now there are 15 million, 10 per cent of the population.