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Brazilian churches bristle at virus quarantines

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Like every Sunday, Brazilian Pastor Silas Malafaia took the stage of his Pentecostal temple in a middle-class Rio de Janeiro neighborhood. But this week, he wore a T-shirt instead of a blazer and, behind the three cameras broadcasting to his legion of YouTube followers, were thousands of empty seats.

Brazil’s churches have landed on the front lines of a battle between state governors, who have introduced quarantine measures designed to contain spread of the new coronavirus, and President Jair Bolsonaro, who is actively undermining them and says a broad lockdown will ultimately destroy Brazil’s economy.

Brazil’s politically powerful evangelicals helped bring the far-right president to power in the 2018 election and Bolsonaro is letting them know they aren’t forgotten, political analysts said. The most influential pastors are backing the president’s radical coronavirus stance while begrudgingly respecting governors’ orders, and either canceling services or moving them online. There are signs some churches are disobeying.

“I’m asking, which is worse: coronavirus or social chaos?” Malafaia, one of Brazil’s most prominent pastors who leads the Assembly of God Victory in Christ Church, said. “I can guarantee you that social convulsion is worse.”

It mirrors the argument of Bolsonaro, who has urged governors to abandon lockdown and likened COVID-19 to a “little flu” that mainly threatens the elderly and those with preexisting health problems. On Sunday, he hit the streets wearing no gloves or mask and joined multiple gatherings, in defiance of recommendations from his own health ministry.

Bolsonaro, a conservative Catholic who married an evangelical in a service Malafaia administered, has zeroed in on the need to reopen the churches. “God is Brazilian,” he told people.

Some religious organizations, such as the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops, have welcomed measures in Rio and Sao Paulo, where all non-essential businesses shut down. Their leader Pope Francis warned in a letter, parts of which were published Monday, of “viral genocide” if countries prioritize economies over people.

In contrast, Malafaia and other evangelical leaders across Brazil have voiced outrage at governors’ decisions, warning they would only cooperate under court order.

“The media say thousands and thousands of people are going to die,” Malafaia said. “All these catastrophic predictions, I want to reject them.”

From March 16 to 25, Rio state prosecutors received dozens of complaints from citizens who said they had seen churches welcome parishioners even after the state imposed quarantine measures. They are looking into the complaints and could file civil suits.

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