Brazil's evangelicals see Cup as fertile soil
Brazilian fans celebrate at Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro on July 4, 2014 after the squad beat Colombia in their World Cup quarter-final tie - by Tasso Marcelo
One group went to proselytize on Rio's tourist magnet of Copacabana Beach, a gathering place for hedonistic hordes enjoying their soccer rituals.
As Brazil prepared to see off Colombia to march into the semi-finals, around 100 evangelicals descended on the beach to seek converts.
As they formed a circle, the cry went out: "Alleluia! Jesus saves us!"
A prayer was followed by an enthusiastic "Glory to the Lord!" and a round of applause.
Military police on guard duty in front of FIFA's luxuriant Copacabana Palace Hotel headquarters, wary of any sign of disturbance, looked on with curiosity.
Many of the group brandished banners in English and Portuguese with slogans like "Jesus is the solution for you!."
With hundreds of thousands of foreign and local tourists packing Rio for the football tournament, the group see a Heaven-sent opportunity to recruit a few for their own team.
"We are going to preach the world of God and hand out 10,000 flyers. We are a lively and dynamic church," pastor Paulo Solimar of the Assembly of God church in the Cantagalo slum told AFP.
- 'Selecao' in moderation -
The evangelicals also hand out some 15,000 small bilingual books entitled "Brazil, history, facts and football curiosities." The work contains anecdotes about the game and tidbits of information on football stars like Pele, Cristiano Ronaldo, Fabio Cannavaro and Lionel Messi.
There is also an article by former Brazil, Real Madrid and AC Milan star Kaka, a devout evangelical Christian, who indicates that "the true sense of victory is having Jesus in my life."
Most of the group say their evangelical faith doesn't clash with football, and that they "don't miss a single Brazil game."
"I support the Selecao to the end," said one of the faithful, Ivanildo de Oliveira, using the local word for the national football team.
But celebrate a football victory with a drink? Out of the question.
Brazil has the world's largest number of Catholics -- around 123 million out of a population of 200 million.
But the evangelical movement and neo-pentecostal offshoots are making sizeable inroads, and now claim more than 40 million members. According to Brazil's statistical institute IBGE, that is an increase of 61 percent between 2001 and 2010.
These new members include some high-profile names such as 22 year-old football megastar Neymar.
Evangelicals and Pentacostals also account for some 15 percent of the 513 members of the national Congress.
Given their current rate of growth Catholics are on the path to being in the minority by 2040.
- "Dogmatism" -
Pastor Solimar attributed the success of the new movements to their ability to plug into "people's spiritual hunger and especially that of the poorest, who are suffering and more open to the Gospel."
Poor Brazilians are also attracted by churches claiming that they can cure social ills and lead them out of poverty.
"I am Catholic, but it is important to bring God's word into any religion," says a woman named Rosangela, a 40-year-old social assistant.
"These churches lead many youngsters away from the clutches of drugs," she told AFP.
Not all of the potential recruits had a positive view of the evangelicals.
Psychoanalyst Zelia and psychologist Uieva both refuse to accept a religious leaflet.
"I'm really afraid of the rise of the evangelicals, their rigidity and their suffocating morality," says Uieva, who says that she folllows no religion.
"They have a dogmatism which just doesn't interest me," adds Zelia.
Some accuse the evangelicals of intolerance towards gay people and of demonizing Afro-Brazilian rites such as Candomble.
- Maracana temple -
When offered "Jesus' help," one beggar responds by asking for "three reais ($1.30) for the bus."
The evangelicals advise him to get in touch with his local Assembly of God church.
The youngest members of the group are the offspring of evangelical parents. Others have life experiences which led them to "want to help others."
"I come from the Penha favela where I was trafficking drugs, prostituting myself," said 29 year-old Albertino.
"I felt lonely, empty. Then, ten years ago, Pastor Marcelo helped me to leave that life behind. I want to save other people."
Today, he says, he is "married and a father."
On July 12, the day before the World Cup final at the Maracana, 1,200 evangelicals plan to encircle the temple of Brazilian football to "send a message of peace to the world."