Evangelicals challenge Catholics in Brazil

CNN/December 22, 1995
From Correspondent Marina Mirabella

Leader of Universal Church Kingdom of God kicks Catholic saint

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RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (CNN) -- In Brazil, the largest Roman Catholic country in the world, the Catholic church is on the defensive, struggling to maintain its religious dominance.

Evangelicals -- groups like the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God -- have moved in and are aggressively going after converts. The evangelicals, says one Catholic, "can't be trusted -- they'll stop at nothing to take people away from our church."

Brazilian Catholics are outraged at the Universal Church, following an incident broadcast on an evangelical variety show. For 10 minutes on live television, viewers saw a pastor of the Universal Church kick and abuse a statue of Brazil's patron saint -- Our Lady of Aparecida.

"This is no saint," he shouted. "Can God really be compared to this ugly thing?" (884K QuickTime Movie)

Thousands of Catholics have taken to the streets to protest the desecration of the statue. The controversy has highlighted the bitterness of the rivalry between the Catholic Church and the evangelicals, focusing attention on the Universal Church.

Founded two decades ago by Edir Macedo, it now has temples in 46 countries. It is the fastest growing church in Brazil -- and one of the richest. Followers are asked to give 10 percent of their earnings to the church.

With rituals that include singing, exorcism and miracle cures, the Universal Church has taken most of its followers from Catholic ranks -- the poor and disenchanted looking for new hope.

"The evangelicals are more attentive to the needs of the poor," says one sociologist. "They're creatively filling a vacuum left by the Catholic Church."

Fifteen years ago, 90 percent of Brazilians described themselves as Catholics. Today that number is less than 70 percent and shrinking.

The world's largest Roman Catholic country is fast becoming a nation of evangelicals as well, with many wondering how much longer the Catholic Church can hold onto its dominance.

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