Brazil's Lula revives ties with Catholic left

Rio De Janeiro, Brazil - President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is reviving old alliances with Brazil's Catholic left as he seeks more votes for this Sunday's run-off in the world's biggest Roman Catholic country.

Grassroots Christian communities and religious social groups make up or influence a big part of the electorate in poor rural areas of the Latin American country, where poverty and unequal income distribution are perennial woes.

Corruption scandals that dogged Lula's first term and some of his economic policies had disenchanted many clerics and the faithful. Lula, who is ahead in polls, is now seeking to rekindle their support with assurances that Brazil's first working-class president will do more to fight poverty than his conservative rival.

"Their support used to be unconditional. But now there are negotiations, and you can see support coming Lula's way again," said Prof. Ruda Ricci, a sociologist and religion expert.

Opinion polls now show Lula with over 60 percent of the votes, leading his challenger Geraldo Alckmin by over 20 points. In the first round on October 1, Lula finished with a seven-point advantage over Alckmin.

Lula, a former union leader, and his Workers' Party have roots in Christian groups that cater to the poor and promote Latin America's home-grown liberation theology, which combines religious teachings with calls for social justice.

Both Lula and Alckmin are Catholics, as is about 70 percent of the population in this country of 185 million. It is rare for a presidential candidate not to be a Catholic.


Ricci said many poor Catholics in rural areas still see the bearded Lula "as a sort of neo-Moses guiding his people toward liberation" and always vote for him.

But he added that it is crucial for the president to regain the allegiance of opinion-makers like priests and religious social movements to obtain more votes.

Commentators say Alckmin has done little to win over the Catholic left in the run-up to this election, betting instead on support from the conservative circles of the church, which has been only modest. He has had to deny rumors he is a member of Opus Dei, an ultraconservative Catholic organization.

"If it was a Lula campaign trick, it worked. To those in more liberal Christian communities Opus Dei is the ultra-right threat, and they firmly associated Alckmin with it," said another religious specialist who did not want to be named.

As an institution, the Catholic Church in Brazil does not support any candidate. But since the first round Lula has received the formal backing of notable "political bishops," like Pedro Casaldaliga and Mauro Morelli.

Carlos Alberto Libanio, a prominent Dominican friar known as Frei Betto, issued a public statement calling to reelect Lula. He defended the president's record despite a slew of scandals and praised social programs.

Earlier this year, top Catholic clergy issued a set of recommendations for voters, orienting them to elect only those politicians not marred by corruption. Some analysts said that might have favored Alckmin's bid as it came after a string of ethics scandals shook Lula's party.

"I sign under every word of those recommendations. But corruption is not part of Lula's record or his government," Frei Betto told Reuters. "The conservatives want to demonize Lula, but base Christian communities are the foundation of the church. I'm sure Lula will be favored by their votes."