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Evangelical Christian churches gain ground in majority Catholic Brazil

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Evangelical Christians now make up the fastest-growing religious movement in Brazil. And Brazil's president is counting on their support to win reelection. NPR's John Otis has more.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing in non-English language).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: This is the Assembly of God Evangelical Church in Madureira, a working-class neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. About 500 people - the men in suits and ties, the women in dresses - are packed in here for the Sunday night service.

ABNER FERREIRA: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: Pastor Abner Ferreira works himself into a frenzy describing the power of God to save souls. He also delves into politics.

FERREIRA: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: In a quieter moment, Ferreira describes his recent meeting with President Jair Bolsonaro. He's a former army captain and right-wing populist who was elected in 2018 with massive support from evangelicals. After the service, I asked Ferreira about the president's appeal.

FERREIRA: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: He says that, like evangelicals, Bolsonaro supports conservative family values and opposes abortion and gay marriage. Last year, Bolsonaro named the first evangelical pastor to Brazil's Supreme Court. In Congress, about 20% of legislators are now evangelicals.

FERREIRA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CHURCHGOERS: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: Until recently, however, evangelicals had almost no political power. The Catholic Church has always been by far the largest denomination. Evangelicals, who believe the Bible is the ultimate moral authority and that lives must be transformed through a born-again experience, made up just a tiny fraction of the population. But amid mass migration from the countryside to Brazilian cities that started in the 1950s, evangelical churches began sprouting up in poor, urban neighborhoods.

JULIANO SPYER: People are coming from all different sorts of places. They're disconnected from their families. And the church becomes this substitution for a family.

OTIS: That's Brazilian anthropologist Juliano Spyer. He says that in impoverished areas ignored by the government and the Catholic Church, evangelicals have stepped in to provide everything from spiritual guidance to daycare and afterschool sports programs.

SPYER: If you lose your job, there is an infrastructure for you to receive help. If your kid is involved with drugs, you can find a lawyer. So it's huge attractive being part of that organization.

OTIS: Among the faith's best known projects are drug rehabilitation centers.

(CROSSTALK)

OTIS: This one, about an hour west of Rio, houses more than 100 patients. One of the supervisors, Carlos Faria (ph), is a former drug addict who was treated here. Faria says he was living on the streets of Sao Paolo when evangelical pastors invited him into a church. Soon afterwards, he was admitted to the rehab center, where, Faria says, through the help of God, he kicked his cocaine habit.

CARLOS FARIA: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: "I was going through some very hard times," he says, "but I found refuge in Jesus Christ." Evangelicals now make up 31% of Brazil's population, according to the Datafolha polling firm. They're still outnumbered by Catholics, who make up 51%. But evangelicals are growing at a much faster clip. They're also more politically active than Catholics, says Anna Virginia Balloussier, who's writing a book about Brazilian evangelicals.

ANNA VIRGINIA BALLOUSSIER: The evangelical community is more engaged in everything they do. And so it's easier to mobilize people in evangelical churches right now.

OTIS: President Bolsonaro needs them to mobilize in October, when he's up for reelection. But largely due to Brazil's stagnant economy, polls show him trailing the main opposition candidate, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. So Bolsonaro is ramping up his efforts to court evangelicals.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JAIR BOLSONARO: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: At this recent meeting with evangelical pastors, he insisted that God entrusted in him a hard mission, the mission of leading Brazil.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PASTOR: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: The pastors responded with a standing ovation for Bolsonaro, and then by praying for him.

John Otis, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.