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Evangelical churches aggravating Brazil’s Covid-19 crisis

. May 12, 2020
evangelical churches São Paulo's Temple of Solomon, built by the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. Photo: Rafael Neddermeyer/FP

“No state government has the power to suspend my mass,” barked evangelical preacher Silas Malafaia, on March 16. One of President Jair Bolsonaro’s most fervent supporters, Mr. Malafaia lobbied hard for the right to continue hosting the flock of his pentecostal Assembly of God church. A few days later, the president declared religious activities as “essential,” creating a middle ground in which only large services would be suspended, following the Health Ministry’s guidelines to avoid big gatherings — but small masses are allowed. Nevertheless, on Mother’s Day this past Sunday, the Assembly of God held a service for 300 people in São Paulo.

Not even a federal court order to remove churches and temples from the list of essential activities has compelled the president to change tack.

The decision dates from March 31, and gave the government 24 hours to alter the rules on religious establishments — but nothing has been done so far. States such as Mato Grosso do Sul and Amazonas — the first to observe a major public health collapse — followed suit and slapped the &#8220;essential&#8221; tag on churches.</p> <p>Besides the president — and perhaps sectors of the business community —&nbsp;Evangelical leaders have become the fiercest opponents of social isolation rules, calling for the reopening of their temples and of the economy as a whole. They have dismissed the coronavirus as &#8220;harmless&#8221; and said the fear surrounding the pandemic is nothing more than “<a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/03/17/brazil-coronavirus-deniers-positions-power/">a tactic of Satan</a>.” Just as Mr. Bolsonaro is worried about <a href="https://brazilian.report/podcast/2020/05/06/explaining-brazil-podcast-107-support-bolsonaro-resilient/">what an economic collapse may do to his approval ratings</a>, preachers worry about the impacts of the crisis on their revenue.</p> <p>In live social media broadcasts, Twitter posts, and WhatsApp messages, several church owners have claimed that without tithes —&nbsp;a contribution of 10 percent of followers&#8217; salaries — and spontaneous offerings, they might not be able to make ends meet. The finances of Brazilian churches are a black box, but there are indications of how much the sector is struggling: in April, <em>TV Record</em> — a broadcasting network owned by Evangelical denomination the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God — requested a 90-day moratorium on its debts, claiming revenues have significantly dropped due to the coronavirus pandemic.</p> <p>Preaching against social isolation has borne fruits. According to pollster Datafolha, Evangelical Christians are more prone to downplay the severity of Covid-19, while also being more supportive of President Bolsonaro. While only 37 percent of the general population agree that people not in the so-called &#8220;high-risk groups&#8221; should go back to work, that rate jumps to 44 percent among Evangelicals.</p> <div id="buzzsprout-player-1302016"></div> <script src="https://www.buzzsprout.com/299876/1302016-65-faith-is-a-profitable-business-in-brazil.js?container_id=buzzsprout-player-1302016&amp;player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Snake oil and magic beans</h2> <p>The actions of Evangelical leaders are not only dangerous for actively going against scientific evidence and helping lower social isolation rates. Some preachers are also using the pandemic — and the fear it has caused — as a money-making opportunity.</p> <p>In São Paulo, Evangelical pastor Valdemiro Santiago, from the Universal Church of the Power of God, gave mass on May Day weekend to 3,000 followers. During the service, he compared the coronavirus to a demon and announced his church was selling a bean seed “which can heal people” for BRL 1,000. Federal prosecutors have requested Google to remove Mr. Santiago&#8217;s videos from its search engine — and also asked state prosecutors, who have jurisdiction over the matter, to investigate the preacher for swindling.</p> <p>Mr. Santiago is hardly an exception. Among Brazil&#8217;s thousands upon thousands of small-scale churches, there are a significant number of pastors pushing wild Covid-19 cures during the pandemic. There have been claims that a simple solution of <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9XF2kLfd19g">garlic, turmeric, and lime juice</a> can cure the disease, while another pastor recommends <a href="https://g1.globo.com/sp/santos-regiao/mais-saude/noticia/2020/05/08/pastor-sugere-gargarejo-para-que-fieis-nao-peguem-coronavirus-veja.ghtml">gargling with baking soda and warm water</a>.</p> <p>Others, predictably, claim the only solution is to convert to their church and repent for their sins, as is the case of pastor Gilberto Passos, from the northeastern state of Bahia, who says Covid-19 is a &#8220;plague against cuckolds who follow religions that worship killer cockroaches.&#8221;</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-map" data-src="visualisation/2360213" data-url="https://flo.uri.sh/visualisation/2360213/embed"><script src="https://public.flourish.studio/resources/embed.js"></script></div> <h2>Replacing the state</h2> <p>It can be tempting to dismiss religious followers who believe in magic beans against the coronavirus as stupid. But the truth is that Evangelical churches have earned the trust of low-income populations after years of stepping in where the state is absent. Though the federal government has struggled to pay out a three-month BRL 600 emergency salary to vulnerable families, some churches have organized massive food drives that are well-documented on <a href="https://www.facebook.com/428663864538931/posts/725084544896860/?d=n">social media</a>.</p> <p>Evangelical Christians are the fastest-growing religious group in Brazil, accounting for 30 percent of the population, according to some estimates. And given the economic depression approaching Brazil, they are bound to increase their band of followers.</p> <p>A group of economists at think tank Fundação Getulio Vargas studied the relation between the impact of economic crises on people’s religious behavior. They crafted a hypothesis according to which areas that suffered the most in recent economic downturns observed the biggest surge in Evangelical churches. For each 1-percent loss in revenue during the 1990s, they identified a <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-weekly/2020/01/13/lula-workers-party-bidding-evangelical-voters/">0.8-percent growth in the number of Evangelicals</a>. “These churches give vulnerable populations a solidarity network the state has failed to,” Francisco Costa, one of the authors of the study, told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> back in January.</p> <p>More than ever, this solidarity network will be necessary.

 
Brenno Grillo

The Brazilian Report's correspondent in Brasília, Brenno has worked as a journalist since 2012, specializing in coverage related to law and the justice system. He has worked for O Estado de S. Paulo, Portal Brasil, ConJur, and has experience in political campaigns.

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