Hundreds of thousands of evangelicals march in Rio

Rio de Janeiro (AFP) - Hundreds of thousands of evangelical Christians held a "March for Jesus" Saturday in Rio de Janeiro, a show of their churches' growing heft in the world's largest Roman Catholic country.

Dancing to Christian rock, gospel and hip-hop blasted from eight enormous sound trucks, participants flooded one of central Rio's main avenues in a march that took its theme from the World Cup, which Brazil is hosting from June 12 to July 13.

"I belong to Jesus. I am a champion," proclaimed their jersey-style T-shirts, printed in the green, yellow and blue of the Brazilian flag and the national team's uniforms.

Police said 600,000 people joined the march, an annual event that routinely draws hundreds of thousands of participants bused in from congregations around the state.

Similar marches in Sao Paulo also draw six-figure crowds each year.

"We're here to represent our religion and show the power of the evangelical population, which is growing," said Jardson Carioca, a 30-year-old bus driver who came with 50 other members of his church, the Assembly of God of Vila Ponto Chic in the suburb of Nova Iguacu.

Evangelical denominations are booming in Brazil, capitalizing on an extensive network of churches with lively services and open pulpits where the faithful can have a voice without needing to be ordained pastors.

They have deftly used their own television, radio and social media networks to draw millions of Christians away from the Roman Catholic Church.

And in a country with millions of poor, evangelical churches typically teach a message of change for the better in this life and after. The local Catholic church in contrast traditionally puts the accent on the afterlife.

Just 57 percent of Brazil's 200 million people now call themselves Catholic, a dramatic plunge from 92 percent in 1970.

Evangelicals have meanwhile grown from 5.2 percent of the population in 1970 to 28 percent today.

The hoards dressed in Brazil's national colors stood in sharp contrast to recent protests against the country's spending on the World Cup, which have made headlines as the tournament approaches but drawn far smaller crowds.

Anger over the more than $11 billion being spent on the tournament drew a million Brazilians into the streets a year ago during the Confederations Cup, a World Cup dress rehearsal, but the movement has since lost its massive numbers.

Recent anti-World Cup protests in Rio, Sao Paulo and Brasilia have drawn crowds in the thousands or smaller, with journalists and street vendors sometimes outnumbering the demonstrators.