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Filipe DominguesJanuary 04, 2023
Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva arrives to the Planalto Palace with a group representing diverse segments of society after he was sworn in as new president in Brasilia, Brazil, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva arrives to the Planalto Palace with a group representing diverse segments of society after he was sworn in as new president in Brasilia, Brazil, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

“Who was the person who gave you cause for a grudge this year? Think about them today, pray for them today,” said a Brazilian parish priest during Christmas Eve Mass in Santo André, a city in the São Paulo metropolitan area.

“And what about you? Have you caused resentment in anyone?

“This is the moment of renewal,” he said. “Christ, born today, is our peace.”

The theme of forgiveness and reconciliation in this sermon was likely repeated by many other pastors across Brazil this Christmas season. In 2022, the nation experienced one of the most fiercely disputed presidential contests in its history. But after four years of the far-right government of Jair Messias Bolsonaro, Brazilians peacefully welcomed—for the third time—the inauguration of the popular center-left leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on New Year’s Day.

After four years of the far-right government of Jair Messias Bolsonaro, Brazilians peacefully welcomed—for the third time—the inauguration of the popular center-left leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on New Year’s Day.

In keeping with his combative style, Mr. Bolsonaro did not attend the inauguration ceremony and did not pass the presidential sash to Mr. Lula as tradition dictates. Instead he traveled to Orlando, Fla., just days before the end of his term. The presidential sash was symbolically given to Mr. Lula by a group of ordinary citizens, representing different groups within Brazilian society.

“We do not carry any spirit of revenge against those who sought to subjugate the nation to their personal and ideological designs, but we are going to ensure the rule of law," Mr. Lula said, without mentioning Mr. Bolsonaro by name. "Those who erred will answer for their errors, with broad rights to their defense within the due legal process.”

In his first acts as president on Sunday, Mr. Lula signed a decree to tighten gun control and set a 30-day deadline for the comptroller-general’s office to evaluate various Bolsonaro decrees that placed official information under seal for 100 years. He also signed a decree that guaranteed a monthly stipend for poor families and reestablished the mostly Norway-financed Amazon fund for sustainable development in the rainforest.

Catholic leaders in Brazil told America that, among the many areas of mutual concern with the church, Mr. Lula’s administration will be focused on a promise to end hunger in the largest nation of South America. Another area for Brazil’s Christians to tackle will be addressing the deep divides that have emerged within Brazilian society and the church itself during Mr. Bolsonaro’s turbulent administration.

On Oct. 30, Mr. Lula was elected president after winning 60.3 million votes in a run-off election against Mr. Bolsonaro, who received 58.2 million votes. Mr. Lula had been president of Brazil for two consecutive terms, between 2003 and 2011. Returning him to the office, for many Brazilians, was the only way to remove Mr. Bolsonaro from power and turn back the threat to Brazilian democracy he represented.

Mr. Lula’s administration will be focused on a promise to end hunger in the largest nation of South America.

A Ph.D. in ecology and a member of Mr. Lula’s transition team in the area of science and technology, Ima Vieira described the administrative state left behind this week by the Bolsonaro government as “chaotic.” In Brazil, the constitution provides that before taking office the new president appoints a transition team whose members are responsible for offering a diagnosis report to the new government. Mr. Bolsonaro did not concede defeat to Mr. Lula, but authorized his ministers to participate in the transition—something that, according to members of the group, they did with minimal effort.

A researcher at the Goeldi Museum and adviser to Pan-Amazon Ecclesial Network (Repam-Brasil), Dr. Vieira said that Brazil’s public and private sectors will have to join forces to create jobs and reinforce assistance programs for vulnerable families. “Public policies will need to be recovered in various sectors, including those related to combating deforestation in the Amazon,” she said. Through the bishops’ conference and local leaders, she believes “the Catholic Church had a strong and active voice in combating the Bolsonaro government’s destructive policies,” and it will need to continue “tackling socio-environmental issues in Brazil.”

The challenge of bringing the social order back on track in Brazil includes stabilizing the economy, rebuilding environmental protection channels weakened under Mr. Bolsonaro, restructuring the educational system and reorganizing public health, according to Sônia Gomes de Oliveira, the president of the National Council of the Laity of Brazil. She said the new government has challenges in all areas of social security and welfare, as well as in confronting racial and gender violence.

“Nothing in our country works well today, especially when it comes to the poorest people,” she told America. Unemployment and homelessness are also big concerns.

Bringing the social order back on track in Brazil includes stabilizing the economy and rebuilding environmental protection channels weakened under Mr. Bolsonaro.

“Unemployment causes hunger and leads people to live on the streets,” she said. In addition, Ms. Oliveira notes that the lack of adequate rural settlements lead small farmers to move to overcrowded cities, where they end up in poor living conditions.

“It is important to protect family agriculture and the rights of traditional communities, such as fishermen, quilombolas and Indigenous peoples, who need to have their territories respected,” she said. (Quilombola communities are settlements founded by former slaves and people of African origin during colonial times.)

To deal with the complexities and inconsistencies of Brazilian politics, it is necessary to reinforce the formation of all baptized Catholics in the church’s social teaching, said Ms. Gomes de Oliveira. “We need to understand, in fact, what it means to be a Christian in a secular state,” she said. “Following Jesus means being able to occupy political spaces, to defend all lives, perhaps supporting the new government, but at the same time denouncing what is not just.”

Elected in 2018, Jair Bolsonaro was the first Brazilian president to lose a re-election race. His aggressive and blunt rhetoric, pro-gun discourse and his giant base of angry social media supporters followed the model of former U.S. President Donald Trump. But Mr. Bolsonaro’s presidential C.V. was weighed down by the deaths of 693,000 Brazilians because of Covid-19 and a more than 50 percent increase in Amazon deforestation rates.

And under his watch, hunger returned to Brazil. Now more than 33 million people—16 percent of Brazilians—do not have enough to eat, the highest rate since the 1990s. A journalist covering politics for the Catholic weekly newspaper O São Paulo and the community radio station Rádio Cantareira, Daniel Gomes, says that many Brazilians wake up each day with the unwelcome realization “that to feed themselves…they will need [to rely] on someone’s solidarity.”

“Following Jesus means being able to occupy political spaces, to defend all lives, perhaps supporting the new government, but at the same time denouncing what is not just.”

Living day to day, many of Brazil’s working poor try their luck searching for temporary jobs. Some have to skip a meal or replace it with cheap, unhealthy food. “This is the short-term issue the Lula administration will have to address,” Mr. Gomes said.

And, of course, fighting hunger is one of the church’s abiding concerns, “regardless of who is president at the moment,” just as “it is the role of the state to uphold human dignity,” Mr. Gomes added.

In 2023, hunger will recur as a theme to the Fraternity Campaign, a country-wide initiative launched annually by the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil during Lent. This time, the campaign will be inspired by Matthew 14:16 and the miracle of the loaves and fishes: “[Jesus] said to them, ‘There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.’”

At the campaign launch, in October, Bishop Joel Portella Amado, general secretary of the C.N.B.B., said: “We hunger for God, we desire God, but the Bible teaches that whoever loves God also loves his brother, his sister. So ask yourself: ‘Why do many people on the face of the earth experience the scourge of hunger?’”

When Mr. Bolsonaro came to power, many Brazilians were driven by dissatisfaction with “old politics” and corruption, and inflamed by misinformation spread on social media. For many of them, Mr. Lula and his Worker’s Party represented a return to a model in which values and ideals are worth less than dirty deals among political factions.

Cooling political tempers in the church will mean joining forces to “announce the Gospel in all places.”

Mr. Lula had been convicted on corruption charges in 2017 and imprisoned for 580 days, but his conviction was overturned in 2021 by the Supreme Court.

Despite his defeat, Mr. Bolsonaro’s supporters appear ready to continue to contest the election, deploying Catholic religious symbols and practices, praying rosaries outside military bases among them, as weapons in a cultural war against what they define as “diabolic communism.”

Mr. Lula has his own unconditional supporters within the church, often members of left-wing social movements historically rooted in 1960s liberation theology.

Church leaders are ready to confront this polarization of Brazilian society. According to Mr. Gomes, “extremists are a minority in the church environment, but they are more passionate and gain prominence at election time.” Cooling political tempers in the church will mean joining forces to “announce the Gospel in all places,” he said. “If priests and laity in pastoral leadership roles focus on that, peace in church communities will come about naturally.”

There remains a third, huge non-ideological mass—the majority of Brazilians who go to church more to pray than to debate—whose electoral decisions will likely remain flexible.

Many Lula voters believe that, despite his flaws, he represented the best chance of preserving the democratic Constitution of 1988, which began the redemocratization of Brazil after 20 years of military dictatorship. Mr. Bolsonaro had disregarded the constitution frequently, flirting with military rule, for example, and casting doubt on the election system without offering any serious evidence of a problem. Because of his many attacks on the integrity of the vote, hundreds of his supporters across the country—some of them violent and armed—have been camping in front of military bases, rioting against election results and agitating for a military coup.

Electing Mr. Lula “was a self-defense act for democracy,” said former senator Marina Silva. She had been Mr. Lula’s environment minister from 2003 to 2008 but broke ties with him after disagreements on balancing environmental policy, infrastructure development and economic growth. In 2022, she reconciled in an effort to ensure Mr. Bolsonaro’s defeat. Ms. Silva has again been appointed to lead the environment ministry, and another former political rival of Mr. Lula, Senator Simone Tebet, has been appointed planning minister. Mr. Lula’s vice president, Geraldo Alckmin, was also a center-right political rival and will now lead the Ministry of Development, Industry and Commerce.

With reporting from The Associated Press

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