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RELIGION-BRAZIL: Growth of Evangelical Churches Fueled by ‘Personal Touch’

Fabiana Frayssinet

DUQUE DE CAXIAS, Brazil, May 8 2007 (IPS) - The Assembly of God Family Church is crowded with worshippers. In the dying gloom of the surrounding “favela” (shantytown), this church is a “bright and saving light,” says a devotee who is asking that her spirit be freed from the daily problems that plague her.

“My house is falling down,” the woman says, contorting her body and sobbing. “Out, out, out, evil spirit!” responds the minister, laying his hand on her forehead while two elders hold her up when she is on the point of fainting.

The church, which was founded by Pastor Edinaldo Silva, draws a huge congregation of domestic workers, bus drivers, labourers, house-painters, construction workers and unemployed people, a social group that Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff describes as “the marginalised exploited class on the periphery of the cities.”

Such marginalisation, according to Boff, is one of the main reasons why the Roman Catholic Church in Brazil has been gradually losing adherents over the past 10 years.

“But I would say that it’s the Catholic Church that is primarily to blame, because it hasn’t reached out to the most neglected social classes,” Boff told IPS.

“The (Catholic) Christian base communities are active in the poorest rural areas, but when people migrate to the big cities they feel lonely and abandoned, and as these churches promise them instant prosperity and happiness, they flock to join them,” he said.

Pastor Edinaldo’s is one of the 32 neo-Pentecostal churches competing for members in an area of just four square kilometres of Nova Metrópolis, a favela on the outskirts of Duque de Caxias, north of Rio de Janeiro.

This heavy concentration of churches in such a small area is a vivid illustration of the remarkable growth of evangelical Protestant – especially Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal – churches in this country, which Pope Benedict XVI will be visiting from Wednesday on his first journey to Latin America as pontiff.

Although Brazil is still ranked as the country with the largest number of Roman Catholics in the world, making up 74 percent of its 188 million people according to the latest census by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), 23 percent of the population is now Protestant.

Ronald Apolinario, an expert on neo-Pentecostalism at the Universidade Estadual (State University) in Rio de Janeiro, attributes its growth to the adaptability of the movement’s religious expression. “They accept that the gift of the Holy Spirit can manifest itself, for example, in healing, exorcism, and speaking in tongues,” he said.

Pentecost, in Christian tradition, was the day that the Holy Spirit was poured out on the first Christians, manifesting itself as wind, flames, the gift of speaking in foreign tongues, and an outburst of evangelical zeal that transformed their small community. Pentecostal, or charismatic, churches emphasise the gifts of the Spirit today.

Most of the people who attend Pastor Edinaldo’s church were originally Catholic.

“Even though the Catholic Church now has its own charismatic movement, which is a very good thing, it still leaves people feeling empty inside,” the minister told IPS.

Sociologist Luiz Alberto Gomes de Souza, director of the science and religion programme at the Candido Mendes University, attributes the exodus from the Catholic Church to “the enormous need rural migrants have to reconstruct their sense of identity,” which they lost when they left their roots and moved to the big city.

“If you go to a Catholic church on Sunday, the mass is an anonymous affair. You don’t know the people sitting next to you. At one point, when ‘peace’ is exchanged, everyone hugs each other, but it’s only a formality,” Gomes told IPS.

“In contrast, at a neo-Pentecostal church the pastor greets newcomers at the door, and asks them their name and about their life. He (or she) takes a personal interest in their story. Everyone knows everybody else, just like in the (Catholic) Christian base communities in rural areas,” he said.

Apolinario, on the other hand, attributes the power of evangelical churches to attract faithful to what he calls “enchantment.”

“These churches offer a quote, ‘re-enchantment,’ unquote. They provide a return to the world of the fantastic, the emotional, the inexplicable. I call this the ‘Pentecostal ethos,’ particularly everything connected with exorcism and speaking in tongues,” Apolinario said.

In addition to the power of the spiritual manifestations, cited by Pastor Edinaldo, there is another phenomenon associated with the growth of charismatic evangelical churches.

While only 22 percent of self-declared Catholics go to mass on a weekly basis, 68 percent of neo-Pentecostals attend church at least once a week, according to a report by Gomes’ religious studies department.

“The people who come to my church are seeking fervour and a more powerful spiritual experience. People are very impressed when they see powerful acts, and these things can be found within Pentecostalism,” said Pastor Edinaldo.

The service begins with songs of praise to God. At the Assembly of God Family Church the moment of climax is the exorcism. A woman’s voice turns thick and deep as “the Devil becomes manifest,” as she says later, explaining that the devil had possessed her body.

“I understand God’s message in this church, because they talk the same way I do,” Neide Aparecida told IPS when the service was over.

“We are afraid that Benedict XVI might issue a warning against our theology as being too politicised and too engaged in social and political processes,” said Boff, who is one of the foremost exponents of liberation theology, the left wing of the Catholic Church that is committed to a preferential option for the poor.

Should the Pope adopt such a position, it could hasten the departure from the Church of more Catholic faithful in Brazil, said Boff, who left the priesthood in 1991 after being subjected to religious sanctions and restrictions for his theological ideas.

Boff was silenced (forbidden to preach, teach, write or otherwise express his views) by the current pope when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Prefect of the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a position he held from 1981 until his elevation to the papacy in 2005.

“His (Pope Benedict’s) concern is to preserve the Church as a strong institution. Basically, the Vatican wants the Latin American Catholic Church to remain dependent on Europe. It is against a Latin American Church that follows its own path, adapting to the region’s different cultures and their message of syncretism,” Boff said.

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