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Evangelicals wield voting power across Latin America, including Brazil

Worshipers pray at an evangelical church in Brasilia, for the recovery of Brazilian right-wing presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who was stabbed while campaigning
Worshipers pray at an evangelical church in Brasilia, for the recovery of Brazilian right-wing presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who was stabbed while campaigning AFP/File

Montevideo (AFP)

Evangelical churches are flourishing across traditionally Catholic Latin America and as the religious movement grows, its influence -- including in this weekend's elections in Brazil -- transforming the region and swinging its politics to the right, analysts say.

Sharply opposed to abortion, same-sex marriage, the legalization of marijuana and leftist ideology in general, the evangelical movement has boosted conservatives and helped unseat a slew of left-leaning governments across the region.

Powerful evangelical churches are now helping tip the balance in Brazil, where far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro is riding high in the polls ahead of Sunday's presidential election first round.

"The recent elections in Chile, Costa Rica, Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala and the upcoming one in Brazil reveal both greater electoral polarization and a shift to the political right," says Andrew Chesnut, director of Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.

In Mexico, "even though he's left of center, Lopez Obrador felt he had to make an alliance with a small conservative party founded by a Pentecostal pastor, to ensure his victory," he says, referring to President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

- Political fervor -

Latin America has 40 percent of the world's Roman Catholics, but evangelical churches that grew out of American Protestantism at the beginning of the 1900s are attracting more and more followers, and they are increasingly influential come election time.

According to a 2014 study by the Pew Investigation Center in the US, one in five Latin Americans are Protestant.

The figure rises to 41 percent in Honduras and Guatemala, where General Efrain Rios Montt became the world's first Pentecostal head of state when he came to power in a 1982 military coup.

Most of the new churches are Pentecostal, a movement energized by expectation of the imminent second coming of Christ.

Pentecostal growth has been so strong in Brazil that the South American behemoth "now is home to the largest Pentecostal population on earth with more believers than even in the USA," said Chesnut.

William Mauricio Beltran, a professor at Colombia's National University, said evangelical churches had "managed to respond better to the needs of new generations of Latin Americans.

"Particularly in the context of accelerated social change, characterized by rapid urbanization and globalization, increasing uncertainty, and increasing social pluralization."

Those "processes that have left large sectors of the population excluded, or with very few opportunities."

For both Beltran and Chesnut, pedophile scandals in the Catholic Church -- of the kind currently roiling the church in Chile -- have helped push more Christians towards evangelical movements.

- At the heart of political debate -

Evangelism has played a key role in some of the biggest political upheavals in the region in recent years, said Gaspard Estrada, a specialist in Latin American politics at Paris' Science Po university.

They include the impeachment of Brazil's president Dilma Rousseff, the "No" vote in the Colombian referendum on the 2016 FARC peace deal, and Guatemala's recent decision to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

"The themes that are dear to the evangelicals are increasingly present in public debate," said Estrada.

He points out that the evangelism embraced by Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales weighed heavily on his decision to move the embassy.

According to evangelists, Jews should rebuild their biblical temple in Jerusalem, which is a key step in a series of events that would lead to a second coming of Jesus Christ on Earth.

"Evangelical pastors intervene much more in the daily lives of the faithful, they have no problem to call on people to vote for someone," said Estrada.

Ahead of Brazil's election on Sunday, the influential Universal Church of the Kingdom of God has come out strongly for Bolsonaro, the tough-on-crime former army captain who is favored to win.

- Swing to the right-

Even more than a swing to the right, the Evangelical surge "is a victory for alternativsm," Estrada believes.

"Because of the corruption scandals, lack of leadership and stalled growth, there is a radicalization of the electorate in Latin America. Voters are being pushed to extreme and alternative candidates," Estrada said.

"This affirmation of the evangelical and conservative vote is a reaction to the progress of feminist voting and civil society."

According to Beltran from Colombia's National University, the churches have managed to mobilize into a political machine "whose role and power must be taken into account at each election."

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