SÃO PAULO – A visit by a Catholic priest to jailed protesters accused of storming and vandalizing government buildings in Brasilia, and planning a coup on January 8, sparked controversy among Catholics in Brazil.

More than 1,800 people were detained and taken to a federal police compound after supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro promoted a violent protest on the Esplanade of the Ministries.

Dissatisfied with President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s electoral victory in October and claiming that the voting machines were fraudulent, thousands of Bolsonaro supporters have camped out in front of army barracks demanding a military coup for the past three months.

On January 8, buses from across the country brought hundreds of additional protesters to Brasilia. Part of the group that was camping in front of the Army headquarters joined them and formed a mob that invaded the Senate and part of the Chamber of Deputies, the Supreme Court and the presidential palace.

They not only broke glass, windows, doors, furniture and equipment, but also works of art that were exhibited in those places. The cost to repair the Congress building alone has been estimated at $1.4 million. Sculptures and paintings created by important artists such as the painter Emiliano di Cavalcanti and the Italian-born sculptor Victor Brecheret were also vandalized and beyond repair.

Beyond the property damage, many Brazilians saw the extremists’ move as an attempt to create chaos and provoke the military to launch an action against the Lula administration and the Supreme Court. That would be the starting gun for a coup led by the Armed Forces to overthrow Lula and restore power to the right.

On January 10, Father Rogério Soares, O. de M., spent four hours in the police compound where the detainees were while they waited to be heard by the investigators.

“It was a very impressive experience. Most people were at least 40 years old, with many in their sixties. Most of them were visibly poor people. They were very scared,” Soares said. Crux.

While a significant portion of Bolsonaro’s constituency comprises evangelical Pentecostals and neo-Pentecostals, Soares said there were numerous Catholics in the group and that many people came to him while he was there.

“They talked to me and prayed. Many of them were in a very turbulent psychological situation, ”she described.

Soares said that part of the emotionally impactful atmosphere he felt was related to the fact that many of the detainees were not told they were under arrest.

“They were taken from the army headquarters camp on January 9 and put on buses. They thought they were going to take them to a bus station. They did not understand that they were going to jail, ”he said, adding that even at the federal police compound they had not received any information yet.

“That procedure struck me, as well as the fact that their individual conduct is not being considered. They are all called ‘terrorists’, but I am sure that many of them were not involved in those events,” Soares said.

According to the priest, who is a long-time member of the Penitentiary Pastoral in Brasilia and regularly visits the local penitentiary, most of the people arrested were used as “puppets” by the real perpetrators of the incident.

“A collective psychosis was created among those people with fake news and misinformation. They really believe that communism will take root in Brazil [by Lula’s Workers’ Party] and that they need to save their country,” the priest said.

Soares said he asked many detainees if they knew vandalism would take place, and they said no.

“They said that such actions were encouraged by some people at the march. They think those people were infiltrated Workers’ Party militants,” Soares said, adding that such a claim is not credible.

After the hearings, 600 detainees were released for humanitarian reasons, including old age and health conditions. The rest were sent to prisons.

Soares’s visit to the detainees was seen by many Brazilians, Catholic or not, as a gesture of “political solidarity” with extremist Bolsonaro supporters. Hundreds of people criticized him and the Archdiocese of Brasilia on social networks, saying that “the Church must condone anti-democratic and violent movements” and that these people “do not deserve amnesty or Penitentiary Pastoral Care.”

“I visit rapists, murderers and corrupt politicians in prison every week. That is the charism of my congregation and that is my mission,” Soares said.

Sister Petra Pfaller, of German origin, who coordinates the Prison Ministry in Brazil, emphasized that the group’s goal is “to be present in prison, so you cannot ask an inmate about his innocence or about the crime he committed.” .

“We cannot judge, we can only attend to everyone. We must leave our political creeds, our resentment, our hatred and our willingness to judge outside of jail when we are visiting prisoners,” he said. Crux.

Pfaller added that people must be held accountable for their actions, but punitive measures are not the solution. Since the January 8 coup attempt, many Lula supporters have been demanding harsh sentences for those involved in the incident. “No to amnesty” has become a common slogan among the left.

“In my opinion, the camps in front of the army barracks were absurd. And I am sure that Lula’s election reflected the will of the people. I also think those protesters were reckless to say the least. But we cannot confuse justice and revenge and create an atmosphere of revenge,” Soares said.

In his opinion, “only simple people were arrested, leaving those who organized and financed such acts free.”

Any punitive trend, no matter who is punished, is incompatible with the Church’s social doctrine, argued Francisco Borba Ribeiro Neto, director of the Center for Faith and Culture at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo.

“The Church will always accompany people regardless of their fault and will always defend their rights,” he said.

Ribeiro Neto pointed out that most of these “simple old men” went to Brasilia because they were convinced that they had to fight a non-existent enemy.

“If the Workers’ Party were to carry out a left-wing coup, the Armed Forces, which are mostly right-leaning in Brazil, would certainly act to prevent it. Those people suffered from misinformation, they were used,” he said. Crux.

This does not mean that they should not be punished, “but rather that there are really dangerous people behind them who must be identified and prosecuted,” added Ribeiro Neto.

In a message on the current political conflict in Brazil, Cardinal Paulo Cezar Costa, Archbishop of Brasilia, reaffirmed that it is part of the Church’s mission to visit detainees and prisoners, and affirmed that the perpetrators of criminal acts must be held accountable.

He also emphasized that it is urgent to pacify Brazilian society, echoing Pope Francis’ message on January 9 on the situation in the South American country. The pontiff affirmed that an exacerbated social and political polarization is a sign of a weakening of democracy, and that such a process does not help to solve the problems of citizens.