SALVADOR, Brazil (AP) - Off a byway outside Salvador, past an evangelical church and down a short path, Thiago Viana was preparing a celebration. Two new members of his temple would soon emerge from months of seclusion, marking initiation into his Afro Brazilian faith, Candomble.
Then his phone started pinging with messages: Michelle Bolsonaro, the wife of President Jair Bolsonaro, had posted a video to Instagram of Viana and his sister showering former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva with popcorn - a Candomble cleansing rite associated with Obaluaê, the deity of earth and health. The first lady's short comment denounced such a display from da Silva - even as some criticize her for speaking about God.
It unleashed a flood of posts from pastors, lawmakers and ordinary people using the video to claim the Lord's will is for da Silva to lose. Some called Viana and his kind devil worshippers, though he says there's no such thing as the devil in Candomble.
"I was thick-skinned on the outside, but it destroyed me within. … My flesh was trembling and began to throb," he said. "I expected this from an ordinary evangelical person, but not from a person like the first lady."
Viana was caught in the crossfire of a religiously tinged political attack on da Silva, who leads all polls against the incumbent. Bolsonaro is waging an all-out campaign to shore up the crucial evangelical vote that involves keyboard crusaders and the first lady ahead of Oct. 2 elections.
Influential politicians and evangelical pastors are warning their followers, on Facebook and in pulpits, that da Silva would close Christian churches - which he vehemently denies. Users are liking, sharing and commenting in what appears a concerted tactic to distance evangelicals from da Silva, according to Marie Santini, the coordinator of NetLab, a research group at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro that monitors social media and has specifically focused on evangelicals.
"This discourse that the election will be a religious war is theirs," Santini said. "They want to make this election a religious war." ___
This is the first installment in The Associated Press' two-part package about the intersection of politics and religion in Brazil.
Self-declared evangelicals make up almost a third of Brazil's population, more than double two decades ago, according to demographer José Eustáquio Diniz Alves, a former researcher for 17 years at the national school of statistical sciences. He projects they will approach 40% by 2032, surpassing Catholics.
They helped carry Bolsonaro to power in 2018, and he proceeded to tap members of their churches for important ministries and for a Supreme Court justice nomination. But in this electoral cycle, Bolsonaro initially found more difficulty winning their favor.
Many poor evangelicals fondly remembered leftist da Silva's 2003-2010 tenure as time when they could afford to buy meat and pay their bills, according to Esther Solano, a sociologist at the Federal University of Sao Paulo who conducts polling of Bolsonaro voters and evangelicals. Some moderate evangelicals felt Bolsonaro used them politically and isn't a real Christian, as evidenced by his hostility toward public health measures during the pandemic.
Since May, however, various polls have found a significant part of the evangelical vote migrated from da Silva to Bolsonaro, a shift attributed to the incumbent's campaign to portray Brazil as spiritually ill and argue only he can safeguard Christian faith.
Both candidates are Catholic, but Bolsonaro frames the race as a battle of good versus evil, with himself as God's standard-bearer and da Silva a devil. He holds up his wife as the paragon of a Christian woman; she says her husband banished demons who occupied the presidential palace.
Santini said an ecosystem of religious and political disinformation websites has been generating content that candidates, pastors and politicians redistribute via social. It set the news cycle for weeks, with TV pundits calling the race a holy war.
The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, one of Brazil's largest evangelical congregations, tweeted on Sept. 15 that evangelicals "woke up to fact it's impossible to be Christian and from the left."
The campaign also entails associating da Silva with Afro Brazilian religions. One video shared widely in evangelical circles early this year was edited so he appeared to say the devil was speaking to him and taking control. It influenced evangelicals' perceptions at the time, according to Solano, who interviewed dozens of them.
In a campaign appearance Sept. 7, Bolsonaro told the crowd they should compare da Silva's wife with his own - "a woman of God, family and active in my life." Days earlier, a photo circulating in pro-Bolsonaro social media showed da Silva's wife standing before figures of Afro Brazilian religious deities, known as orixas.
Brazil's presidential palace and campaign declined to comment on strategy.
Using Afro Brazilian religions as a political attack isn't new. In 1912, in northeastern Alagoas state, a long-serving governor's supposed involvement with such groups served as pretext to pressure for his resignation, and a citywide ransacking of their temples. That triggered decades of so-called quiet worship, without traditional singing, clapping and drumming.
Today just a small minority practices the religions in Brazil, and in recent years there have been increased reports of incidents of religious intolerance targeting them, particularly at the hands of members of Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal churches. Those institutions, founded since 1970, focus on spreading faith among nonbelievers. While most proselytizing is peaceful, members of African-influenced religions have been subjected to verbal abuse, discrimination, destruction of their temples and forced expulsion from neighborhoods.
"It became fashionable to start thinking that there is just one truth, that God serves for only one religion," said Laura Gallo, a Candomble and Umbanda priestess in Rio de Janeiro. "For the first time, I see our country very divided with regard to religions, and I think that really inflates intolerance."
There have been efforts to promote interfaith respect. In 2007 da Silva signed into law a national day for combating religious intolerance, in memory of a Candomble priestess who was denounced as a charlatan by a prominent evangelical church's newspaper. She was then attacked by an evangelical couple who entered her temple and hit her over the head with a Bible, and died of a heart attack not long after.
Government data show there have been more reports of religious intolerance this year.
There has been a particular surge in the digital realm: 2,918 reports of online incidents in the first eight months of 2022, up from 516 in in the same months in 2021, according to the Salvador-based nonprofit SaferNet, which fields complaints via a hotline it runs with the prosecutor-general's office.
"Debate is polarized, the mood is tense. That leaves people predisposed," Cunha said. "There's a trigger. Something reinforces your perception, you pass it along."
Michelle Bolsonaro avoided the spotlight during most of her husband's presidency, though there were glimpses of her faith. One video showed her repeating "glory to God," speaking in tongues and hopping joyfully after the Senate approved his evangelical Supreme Court appointee.
Over the past two months, however, she has stepped forward and become the leading evangelical voice from Bolsonaro's camp. She has said she prays at Bolsonaro's chair and that, before his presidency, the palace had been consecrated to demons.
At a March for Jesus last month in Rio, she was front and center pumping up a crowd that buzzed with energy. Belting out gospel songs, she made heart signs and blew kisses.
"We will bring the presence of the Lord Jesus to the government and declare that this nation belongs to the Lord," she said in her speech that day. "And the doors of hell will not prevail against our family, the Brazilian church or our Brazil."
That sort of fervent display of faith has resonated with lots of evangelical voters - even in the northeast region, a stronghold of da Silva's Workers' Party.
In Salvador, evangelical pastor Binha Santana and churchgoer Rosilda Carvalho both said they will likely vote for Jair Bolsonaro - or, rather, against da Silva. Santana said the latter's ideology isn't compatible with a government of God, while Carvalho cited his corruption convictions - a frequent Bolsonaro talking point - though they were annulled by the Supreme Court.
Neither was especially excited about the incumbent, but both perked up at the mention of the first lady.
"In Brasilia (the nation's capital) now there are prayers, and where there is prayer, the Lord is present," Santana said. "He is not evangelical, but her prayer covers him."
Political scientist Bruno Carazza said Michelle Bolsonaro's deployment in the home stretch has been like a "secret weapon."
"She communicates very well with that public because she is authentically evangelical, unlike Bolsonaro who says he is Catholic and embraces evangelicalism because of political opportunism," Carazza said. "She has a very important role in communication. She literally speaks the tongue of evangelicals."
Bolsonaro's support among evangelicals has climbed to 50% from 39% in May, while da Silva's tumbled, according to a survey pollster Datafolha conducted Sept. 20-22.
The former president's camp has recognized he has lost ground with them, and earlier this month da Silva held a much-heralded meeting with evangelicals in a stuffy gymnasium on Rio's outskirts.
Da Silva told the crowd his rise from poverty to the presidency is testament to God's existence, but stopped short of expanding upon his spirituality. He has said he wishes to treat all religions with respect, including Afro Brazilian faiths, and eschewing religious rivalries or anything resembling holy war.
"I learned that the state shouldn't have religion, the state shouldn't have church. It should guarantee the operation and freedom of however many churches people want to create," he said.
Conservative evangelicals took to social media to portray his remarks as an attack on the Christian church.
A story on one pro-Bolsonaro news website, Folha da Politica, that referenced the same comments and circulated widely on WhatsApp, accused Lula of making threats and being "full of hatred." Video of the remarks were also shared online by Carlos Bolsonaro, the president's son.
One of Bolsonaro's most fervent backers is Silas Malafaia, a popular pastor who presided over the president's wedding to the first lady, his third wife. He boasts millions of social media followers and regularly blasts da Silva, known universally as Lula, and his party, which he calls "The Party of Darkness."
In an interview, Malafaia said he backs Bolsonaro despite his "defects" because they have shared agendas. He accused da Silva of representing a Marxist cultural campaign to abolish the Judeo-Christian model in the Western world, and vowed to continue preaching that to his flock.
At one service this month, he spent 15 minutes discussing the election. He expressed astonishment that believers might "rip up the Bible in their heart" by voting for a candidate who, he argued, hates their principles, is indifferent to defending traditional families and supports leftist leaders who persecute churches.
"I'm not going to go easy on them. ... because I know who they are and what they do," Malafaia said in an interview afterward. "It is a brand of lying, of cynicism to deceive the people. It's 'Lula, peace and love' on the outside and the devil on the inside."
"We are not fools. That time is over," Malafaia continued. "Social networks ended the monopoly of information."
The vitriol he received after the first lady shared the popcorn video on Instagram shook Viana, the Candomble priest on Salvador's outskirts.
Already suffering from hypertension and high cholesterol, he hurried to a health clinic where a doctor prohibited him from using his phone or even thinking about the episode for two weeks. The medical report indicated Viana, 29, was suffering from high cardiovascular risk.
Largely due to that health scare, Viana said, the orixa Obaluaê asked him to postpone a banquet in his honor, to Sept. 17.
The temple's brick walls were covered with dried palm fronds and drums sent feet shuffling along the earthen floor for hours. People entered trancelike states as they received the orixas.
Following a Yoruba blessing, Afro Brazilian dishes that filled clay pots were served into makeshift bowls fashioned from leaves and shared around.
The drumming resumed. And popcorn rained from overhead, to cleanse everyone of sickness.
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