Brazil's evangelicals flex muscle in Sao Paulo march

SAO PAULO (AFP) - Hundreds of children sang and danced Saturday at the start of Sao Paulo's annual "March for Jesus" expected to draw up to one million evangelical Christians, organisers said.

The 21st edition of the march took place as the country is reeling from the worst social turmoil in more than 20 years, with hundreds of thousands of Brazilians taking to the streets across the country to demand a better quality of life and an end to corruption.

Participants in Saturday's march flocked from various Brazilian states, including Rio de Janeiro, Bahia, Santa Catarina, Minas Gerais, Amazonas, Rondonia and Rio Grande do Sul.

They snarled traffic as they made their way to a northern Sao Paulo square where various gospel music bands performed.

"After so many years, the event continues to have an impact. This shows the growth of the Gospel in the country and is the result of many years of work and prayers," said pastor Estevam Hernandes, founder of the Renascer em Cristo (Reborn in Christ) church, which organised the event.

Hernandes and his wife along with their church have been investigated for money laundering, perjury, libel, exploitation of non-profit status, tax evasion and other criminal actions.

In 2007, the couple was detained in the United States for failure to declare over US$56,000 (S$71,000) in cash on their arrival into the country.

Also attending the march was pastor Marco Feliciano, the president of the House of Deputies' human rights and minorities panel who is facing almost daily calls for his resignation over his disparaging comments about gays and blacks.

Mr Feliciano, who is under investigation for alleged embezzlement within his Pentecostal church, has denied being anti-gay or racist.

"This march is heaven on earth. For me it was very special, as if I emerged from hell and entered heaven," the controversial pastor and lawmaker said.

The event was a powerful demonstration of the growing clout of the evangelical Protestant community in the world's largest mostly Roman Catholic country.

Last year, 1.2 million people attended the march.

Evangelicals represent 22.2 per cent of Brazil's 194-milllion-strong population, up from 15.4 per cent in 2000, while the percentage of Catholics has dropped from 74 per cent to 64.6 per cent during the same period.

In the 594-member Congress, Evangelicals now form a powerful bloc of 73 deputies who espouse conservative views, including support for "the natural family made of a man and a woman."

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