The toxic politics bedevilling Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil swept into Father Lino Allegri’s sacristy one Sunday in July, just after the octogenarian priest delivered a homily lamenting the president’s role in the Covid catastrophe that has killed more than half a million Brazilians.
As Allegri removed his white cassock, eight enraged congregants stormed into the rectangular backroom, past a portrait of Mother Teresa bearing the words: “The most dangerous person: the lie. The worst feeling: hate.”
“Go back to Italy! We don’t want you here!” witnesses remember one of the Bolsonaro-supporting intruders ranting at the Verona-born priest, a naturalised Brazilian citizen who has lived in the South American country for more than 50 years.
“Our president is a Christian! A good man! An honest man!” fumed another, jabbing a finger into the 82-year-old clergyman’s face.
Allegri said he had never suffered such an aggressive post-service diatribe.
“We felt bewildered,” he recalled on a recent Sunday as he sat in the same vestry where he had been harangued by the pro-Bolsonaro mob. Three armed police officers loitered on the street outside to deter another breach.
Another church member shook their head sorrowfully as they remembered watching the Bolsonarista churchgoers berate the elderly priest. “It’s fanaticism, there’s no other word for it … an incomprehensible fanaticism,” said the witness, who asked not to be named out of fear for their own security.
“Father Lino is so loved by all of us here. He brings us peace,” they added. “I just felt so utterly sad at the point our country has reached.”
The sacristy invasion at the ironically named Parish of Peace in the northeastern city of Fortaleza caused a nationwide outcry and exposed the ill-tempered radicalism of the far-right president’s disciples.
The incident also highlighted a bitter split within Brazil’s Catholic and Protestant communities, pitting many millions of worshipers who remain loyal to the country’s ultra-conservative leader against progressive Christians who are appalled at Bolsonaro’s claim to be a defender of their faith.
About 70% of Protestant voters, including some of Brazil’s most powerful Pentecostal leaders, helped Bolsonaro win power in 2018. But opinion polls suggest that support is draining away, largely because of the human and economic pain inflicted by a Covid outbreak critics say the president has catastrophically mishandled.
Last month, amid mounting public anger at Bolsonaro’s insensitive and anti-scientific pandemic response, progressive Protestants announced the creation of an evangelical anti-Bolsonaro alliance with a manifesto demanding the impeachment of a president they accused of spreading “death, hatred and discord”.
“He doesn’t represent the Gospel. He’s a false prophet … he is using God’s name in vain,” said Wesley Teixeira, a protestant activist who was among the signatories.
Brazil’s more than 100 million Catholics, of whom Bolsonaro is one, are also profoundly split on a politician who took office vowing to put “Brazil above everything and God above all”.
Mario César Fonseca, a Parish of Peace representative and Allegri supporter, said many parishioners were Bolsonaro devotees who were committed to Catholicism’s rituals more than its social responsibilities.
The seaside parish is located in one of Fortaleza’s wealthiest neighbourhoods and was the only constituency in the city where Bolsonaro won in 2018’s election.
But Fonseca said that model of “mass above mission” Catholicism was one he, Allegri and other left-leaning liberation theology-inspired church members rejected.
“Faith and life walk together. You cannot come to the temple to pray and take communion but then outside champion death,” Fonseca said, in reference to Bolsonaro’s hardline words and deeds.
“Father Lino represents a model of church that is incompatible with this other model that attacks and shouts.”
Those two conflicting visions continued to clash in the weeks after Allegri’s vestry was stormed on 4 July. During mass the following Sunday, one Bolsonarista took to his feet to scold defenders of the supposedly communist priest. Allegri supporters were filmed shouting the dissenter out of church.
A week later, as splenetic messages circulated on rightwing social media groups labelling the church’s clergy “communist scum”, the Bolsonaristas returned, some attending mass in football shirts carrying the president’s name.
“The idea was to show that we are patriots … and do not approve of the priest’s behaviour,” said one demonstrator, a retired army colonel and rightwing activist called Ricardo Bezerra.
Bezerra, 59, said he was outraged by Allegri’s “pejorative comments” about Brazil’s president and the priests “political proselytism”, and defended what he called an “orderly, peaceful and respectful” protest.
“If he wants to express his political preferences he should do so as a citizen – but he shouldn’t bring this ideology to the altar,” Bezerra said, accusing the softly spoken priest of packing the church with hard-left proponents of class struggle and proletarian revolution.
On 25 July, three weeks after Allegri’s homily plunged the Parish of Peace into turmoil, there was palpable tension as morning worshippers were greeted by a trio of pistol-carrying police sent by the leftwing state governor.
“I feel a little nervous,” the priest said as he stole into the church compound through a metal back door.
Minutes earlier an elderly Bolsonaro supporter had pulled up outside in a silver saloon car, the Prayer of Saint Francis blaring provocatively out of its speakers: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love,” sung Fagner, a popular singer who voted Bolsonaro in 2018 but later recanted.
The interloper drove off when approached but church officials feared he would not be the last and had prepared an escape plan in case the reverend came under attack while celebrating mass.
“I can feel the temperature rising,” said Fonseca, whose T-shirt paid tribute to Óscar Romero, the archbishop and social crusader who was assassinated while celebrating mass in 1980 at the start of El Salvador’s civil war.
As Allegri prepared to take to the altar, one usher said he feared violence. “I’ve got the feeling there’s going to be a fight,” he whispered.
Instead, there was peace. Allegri used his homily to denounce the hunger blighting Brazil’s poor. Citizens hungered too, for love, truth and justice, he concluded, in what some read as a dig at Bolsonaro.
But the priest made no explicit mention of the president and this time there was no rightwing rebellion. As Allegri concluded his address, congregants stood to applaud. Any Bolsonaristas in the congregation remained silent and seated.
“This is a difficult moment – of such tension, polarisation and real intolerance – but it’s during crises like this that humanity reveals itself,” said Rafael Silva, a local academic who works with the priest in a Pope Francis-inspired social movement called The Church Goes Forth.
Back in the sacristy, Allegri cut a weary but relieved figure and admitted his heart had been pounding before he preached.
“The community is divided,” he admitted, pondering how long it would take to heal. “I really hope – and I really pray – that tempers will calm and we can come together again,” Allegri said, “So that the parish of peace is indeed a place of peace.”