Brazil’s Lula issues letter to evangelicals to allay concern

SAO PAULO (AP) — Brazil’s former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva published an open letter to evangelicals on Wednesday aimed at countering claims he would persecute their faith and at winning votes among a large and growing part of the population.

The letter, read at a gathering with evangelical leaders at a Sao Paulo hotel, promised he would respect religious freedoms if elected — as he did during his 2003-2010 presidency.

“We are living at a time in which lies are used intensively with the objective of stoking fear in people of good faith, pushing them away from a candidacy that is defending them more,” the letter said. “That is why I felt a need to reaffirm my commitment to freedom of religion in our country.”

Polls have shown da Silva losing support from evangelicals this year as incumbent Jair Bolsonaro and his allies have warned that the former president supports leftist authoritiarians elsewhere who have persecuted Christians.

They have sometimes literally demonized da Silva and his Workers’ Party, prompting him to issue a bizarre statement this month denying he has ever conversed or dealt with the devil.

Da Silva topped the first round of presidential voting, falling less than two percentage points shy of an outright victory. Most polls show da Silva retaining a lead ahead of the Oct. 30 runoff, but with Bolsonaro gaining some ground in recent weeks.

Da Silva’s letter to evangelicals is reminiscent of one he published as candidate in 2002 to assuage financial markets that he posed no threat. That calmed anxiety at the time and helped the leftist former union leader win the presidency.

In his first year in office, he signed into law a bill that allows the establishment of private religious organizations, with broad support from evangelicals. He has characterized that act as having enshrined the right to religious freedom.

Self-declared evangelicals make up almost a third of Brazil’s population, more than double their share two decades ago. Demographer José Eustáquio Diniz Alves, a former researcher at the National School of Statistical Sciences, projects they will approach 40% by 2032, surpassing Catholics.

Bolsonaro is a Catholic, but his wife Michelle is a devout evangelical. After avoiding the spotlight during most of her husband’s presidency, she emerged during the campaign as the leading evangelical voice from Bolsonaro’s camp. She has said that, before his presidency, the presidential palace had been consecrated to demons.

Bolsonaro’s campaign has insisted da Silva will promote gender-based politics and loosen abortion restrictions rejected by many evangelicals. Da Silva in April said women should have access to abortion, then backtracked somewhat to say he is personally opposed.

Some of Brazil’s most popular evangelical pastors have also campaigned for Bolsonaro, as they did four years ago when they help carry him to victory. Polls indicate that Catholics, meanwhile, largely support da Silva, who is Catholic himself.

Da Silva said in his letter that many evangelicals are confronted with what he calls Bolsonaro’s “use of faith for electoral ends.”

“My administration will never use symbols of your faith for partisan political ends, respecting the laws and traditions that separate State and Church, so there’s no political interference in the practice of faith,” the former president said. “The attempt to use faith politically to divide Brazilians doesn’t help anyone.”

Former Environment Minister Marina Silva, an evangelical who recently reestablished support for da Silva after a public falling out years ago, said at the event that she would rather “belong to a church that is persecuted than one that persecutes.”

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