Catholic and Protestant churches fight for members in Brazil

Sao Paulo, Brazil - Archbishop of Sao Paulo Odilo Pedro Scherer sees new churches cropping up in Brazil - but he is not too pleased.

Many of the small churches are run by Evangelicos - a Brazilian collective term for traditional Protestant, Pentecostal, Free Church and sect communities.

'Simple Catholic folk are under heavy pressure. We need to emphasize our faith. That is our duty,' the 62-year-old who is also cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church in Brazil said on visiting the southern Bahia indigenous communities recently.

Brazil, with more than 190 million people, is still the biggest Catholic country in the world, at least according to official figures.

In 1970, more than 90 per cent of Brazilians regarded themselves as Catholics. But by 2000, the figure was down to 73.9 per cent.

The numbers then remained stable until 2003. The Catholic Church hoped they would stay so, until a few weeks ago, the Centro de Politicas Sociais da Fundacao Getulio Vargas (Centre for Social Policies at the Getulio Vargas Foundation) announced new figures.

By 2009, the Catholic portion of the Brazilian population had dropped to 68.4 per cent, the figures showed.

'That surprised us,' said Father Valeriano, rector of the theology faculty at the Pontifical Catholic University in Sao Paulo. 'We thought the trend had been stopped,' he said.

The coordinator of the study, Marcelo Neri, said he expected the number of Catholics to continue diminishing.

'If the rate continues to fall by one percentage point annually, only half of the population will be Catholic in less than 20 years,' he said.

It is not the Pentecostal churches that are gaining members, as was the case in the 1990s, but rather traditional Protestant communities such as the Baptists, Lutherans and Presbyterians, according to Neri.

Scherer, however, says the Pentecostalists are growing stronger while some other Protestant communities have lost even more members proportionately than the Catholic Church.

'What we need is a new evangelization,' Scherer said.

That is in line with the position of the Vatican, which does not regard any other Christian denominations as equal to Catholicism.

Pope Benedict XVI will come to Rio de Janeiro in 2013 for Catholic World Youth celebrations. 'That will be a strong signal,' Scherer says.

'There are lots of rumours and stories that the Catholic Church is coming to an end. No - the Catholic Church is alive and well,' the cardinal said.

The state of Rio de Janeiro, which the pope will visit, ranks second-to-last among the 27 Brazilian states in terms of the relative numbers of Catholics, with only 49.8 per cent of its residents defining themselves as Catholics.

Father Valeriano from the Catholic university believes that Brazil needs a new reflection on the fundamentals of the church.

'Europe lived through a very long Christianization, and evangelization was more intensive there. Here in Brazil, the basic sacramental conviction is missing,' he said.

Analysts also attribute the increase of Protestantism to a typically Brazilian propensity to change, whether it is a question of one's political party or religious community.

Bishop Edson in Eunapolis in southern Bahia, for one, has seen two Pentecostal communities appear right in front of his office and church.

The bishop sees his church as being under pressure, but he also regards it as a challenge. 'We shall remain the biggest Catholic country in the world,' he vowed.