Brazil's Evangelical Protestants split over presidential candidates

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - The vote-hunting campaign for the Oct. 27 presidential runoff has split Brazil's Evangelical Protestant churches between supporters of leftist candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and government-backed Jose Serra.

Serra was shown on television this week in a Protestant temple holding hands with two of his most recent supporters, bishops of Brazil's biggest Protestant church, the Assembly of God.

He prayed with the bishops and pledged to defend religious freedom in Brazil and not to support a gay partnership bill that is currently blocked in Congress.

The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God on Friday endorsed Silva, Serra's rival and the favorite in the run-off. One of the Church's bishops pledged to organize a "clash troop" to work across Brazil to protect the leftist candidate "against rumors" that would harm Silva.

The Assembly of God denomination claims to have 14 million members, while the Universal Church says it has a faithful population of 7,5 million.

Protestants account for around 15 percent of Brazil's population of 175 million.

Although Catholics are still an overwhelming majority representing close to 80 percent of the population, it has been Evangelicals, as they are called in Brazil, who have more actively presented their religious faith as a political tool.

All their churches counted, Evangelicals elected over 60 federal deputies, up from 48.

Until Sunday's vote, when Silva fell short of an outright win, most Evangelicals supported former Rio de Janeiro governor Anthony Garotinho, who ended third and is out of the race.

Garotinho now has endorsed Silva, but left it up to his evangelical followers to decide whether they will vote for Silva or Serra.

Both candidates devoted great efforts this week to conquering votes.

Universal Church bishop and deputy-elect Carlos Rodrigues offered his church's 7,500 temples and radio-stations across Brazil for preachers to divulge ideas favoring Silva.

"We shall not be afraid of Silva as we were before. Back then we didn't know him. Now we do know Silva for many years and are sure he will be a good president. He fights for the poor, which is also the church's mission," Rodrigues said.

Later on Friday, at a meeting with Garotinho in Rio de Janeiro, Silva invited the former governor and president of the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB), to join in his government, if elected.

Serra was deemed as "the best candidate" as he got support from the Assembly of God bishops. "He was a good health minister," said bishop Manoel Ferreira. "His ideas are more compatible with ours".