Pentecostals stung by pope's charge of 'aggressive' tactics

Sao Paulo, Brazil - REPRESENTATIVES of pentecostal churches say they are stung by Pope Benedict XVI's charge they use "aggressive" tactics to recruit people to their faith.

In Sao Paulo on Friday during his first trip to the Americas as pontiff, Benedict said people who are "insufficiently evangelised (are) most vulnerable to the aggressive proselytising of (evangelical) sects - a just cause for concern."

The pope said such people "are easily influenced because their faith is weak, confused, easily shaken and naive, despite their innate religiosity."

Afonso Soares, a professor of theology at the Catholic Pontifical University of Sao Paulo, said the pope was sending mixed messages.

The confusing signals are apparent through "ecumenical gestures on the one hand, such as when he meets with representatives of other religions, and on the other hand this faux pas when he talks about sects," Soares told AFP by telephone.

"This shows a certain misunderstanding of the ecclesiastical realities of Brazil, where theoretical sticking points are resolved in practice, in joint eucharistic celebrations or in the common struggle against injustice and poverty."

Robson Rodovalho, a deputy of the right-wing opposition Democratic Party, said the pope's characterisation made common ground harder to find.

"This opinion makes dialogue difficult, especially when we must make a big effort to build a Christian faith in order to fight together for values and the defence of the family."

But Rodovalho, who is a bishop in the neo-pentecostal church Sara Notre Terre, which claims a million members across Brazil with 650 houses of worship, added: "We're already used to this Vatican monolith."

"We are not sects," he told AFP. "The basis of our faith is Christian, even if we have different liturgical practices, just as in the Catholic Church where charismatics have a different liturgy without being labelled sects."

The Catholic bishop of Engativa, Colombia, the spokesman of a Latin American bishops conference that the pope is to open tomorrow, however denied that the pope's remarks were offensive.

"The term 'sect' cannot be considered offensive," Bishop Hector Gutierrez told AFP. "It's a word that has designated a wide variety of religious choices.

"The doors of the Catholic Church are always open to dialogue and conversation with them (the pentecostals), keeping in mind that like with everything there are things that are non-negotiable," he added.

Brazil, with a population of nearly 190 million, has the world's largest concentration of Catholics, but their numbers have fallen in the past decade, from 74 to 64 per cent of the population, while the ranks of the evangelists have swelled from 11 to 17 per cent, according to a recent survey.

The Catholic Church has especially lost ground in Brazil's megacities where an influx of people from the countryside to low-income suburbs and slums have been drawn to the alternative offered by sects that are highly active there.

Catholic theologian Leonardo Boff, who left the priesthood in 1992 after Benedict, who was then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, silenced him for writings on liberation theology, said the Vatican had itself to blame for the desertions.

"We need 100,000 to 120,000 priests. We have only 18,000, including a lot who are foreigners," Boff told the Brazilian news agency Brasil.

Many of the faithful "no longer feel that the Church is their spiritual home," he said.

A Lutheran who is a social democratic deputy, Julio Rodecker, said he understood that the Catholic Church wanted to recover lost ground, but was concerned over the pope's intransigence on issues such as abortion and premarital sex.

"Today religion should help improve human life, and for that you need responsible fatherhood and motherhood. You can't have children that you are incapable of raising afterward," Rodecker said.