Pentecostal churches could decide Brazil presidency

Pentecostalists on Rio's Copacabana beach. A fifth of Brazil's 135 million voters subscribe to Pentecostal churches. Picture: Getty
Pentecostalists on Rio's Copacabana beach. A fifth of Brazil's 135 million voters subscribe to Pentecostal churches. Picture: Getty
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BRAZIL’S rapid religious ­transformation is reverberating through the country’s tight ­presidential race, where abortion and gay marriage have emerged as hot issues and Pentecostal televangelists could be political power brokers.

The socially conservative Pentecostal population now includes more than one-fifth of the electorate, just three decades after barely registering any presence at all.

That change has the secular-minded incumbent quoting Psalms while her Bible-reading main rival has stressed belief in a secular state to avoid alienating liberal voters ahead of Sunday’s first-round vote.

During a recent service at his 6,000-seat Assemblies of God church in a gritty Rio de Janeiro neighbourhood, Brazil’s most influential Pentecostal pastor spent half of the service talking about the election, nudging voters to support top opposition candidate Marina Silva, who is a member of the Assemblies of God, by far Brazil’s largest Pentecostal denomination.

If Ms Silva makes it to the second round and defeats incumbent Dilma Rousseff in an expected 26 October run-off, she would become the first Pentecostal leader of a country with more Catholics than any other.

“A pastor isn’t the owner of anybody’s ballot. I don’t have a band of angels who can peek over your shoulder in the voting booth,” said Silas Malafaia, pacing an enormous stage.

“But you’ve got to vote with your conscience. Don’t just give your vote away. Vote against the corrupt and those who want to destroy the family!”

Mr Malafaia has 800,000 followers on Twitter and books that have sold in the millions. He is part of a rapidly swelling movement that is strongly rooted among poorer Brazilians, a group that otherwise heavily favours Rousseff’s Workers Party, which has lifted millions from poverty with expansive social welfare programmes and the creation of millions of new jobs.

In a recent survey, the Datafolha polling group found that 54 per cent of Pentecostal voters would support Ms Silva in an expected second-round vote, while Ms Rousseff was favoured by 38 per cent. Among the population as a whole, the two were neck and neck.. But in a Datafolha poll released on Tuesday, Ms Rousseff had pulled ahead of Ms Silva in a second-round vote, leading 49 to 41. A breakdown by religion was not given.

Ms Rousseff, a former Marxist guerrilla who was imprisoned and tortured during Brazil’s military dictatorship, rarely spoke of religion before this campaign, but she has been making the rounds of Pentecostal churches and invoking God’s name of late.

In August she spoke to hundreds of Pentecostals in Sao Paulo at an Assemblies of God church.

By contrast, the religious Ms Silva has made no campaign stops in churches and has kept Pentecostal leaders at arm’s length in public, to combat suspicions among non-religious voters that conservative pastors could shape her future policies on social issues. Ms Silva wanted to become a nun and as a teenager moved into a convent, where she first learned to read and write at 16. There, she came into contact with priests adhering to liberation theology.

In 1997, facing extreme ill-health after five bouts of malaria as a girl and hepatitis as a teenager, Ms Silva, by then a senator, converted to the Pentecostal faith upon being told by a ­doctor only a miracle could save her life.