Fires in the Amazon come every year during dry season, but reports indicated that this year’s were particularly severe, some saying the worst in a decade. While international attention turned toward the burning rainforest in August, the Christian community in Brazil was divided in its reaction.
Now, the Catholic Church will revisit its environmental concerns in the region as 100 bishops meet at the Vatican’s Synod for the Amazon, starting Sunday.
Amid rising global climate concerns, the fires have drawn scrutiny toward Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, whose pro-business policies were said to be responsible for spurring an uptick in farmers’ and loggers’ slash-and-burn efforts across the world’s largest rainforest.
The conservative, populist politician initially dismissed the outcry before political pressure led him to declare a 60-day ban on land-clearing fires in late August—but not before Catholic authorities in Brazil criticized Bolsonaro’s leadership on the issue, and the Ecumenical Forum ACT Brazil, a blend of Protestant and Catholic leaders, blamed the administration’s policies for “a surge in devastation of the environment.”
Yet many evangelicals, who make up about a quarter of the country’s population, have come to the president’s defense, dismissing the fires as normal rather than the crisis international officials and media have made them out to be. (Bolsonaro, a Catholic, is married to an evangelical and attended a Baptist church for a decade.)
While Catholic leaders assert pressure on Bolsonaro’s regime to bolster protections of the Amazon jungle—one archbishop called the scorching a “true apocalypse”—and the papal synod is expected to denounce the situation, many evangelicals and Pentecostals said the fires had been hyped to target the president.
“The evangelical response is very much determined by the voice of the present government,” Valdir Steuernagel, chair of the board of World Vision Brazil and ambassador of the Brazilian Evangelical Christian Alliance, told CT.
He described a tense, aggressive political environment in Brasilia and across the Amazon basin. Evangelicals, most of whom position themselves as allies of the administration, have aligned their voices with Bolsonaro, who has been challenged for downplaying environmental concerns and rolling back some forest protections.
Among the evangelical churches sprouting in remoter parts of Brazil’s heavily forested areas, Christians expressed mixed feelings. There have been tears over the flames that threaten the jungle, but some places have also experienced new prosperity as a result of the business activity in the region. For them, economic flourishing has been pitted against creation care.
The evangelical outcry has not come from church leaders in the Amazon or among indigenous pastors. Instead, they say the fires in their area are no larger than before. Speaking with the Religion News Service, Leonardo Cortez, an Assemblies of God pastor in Cacoal, a city in the Amazon state of Rondônia, attributed the blazes to natural causes and the crises to political clashes.
“The environmental activists don’t understand that we take from the Earth a great part of our livelihood and of the commodities Brazil exports,” he said. “So it’s necessary for us to achieve a balance.”
The upcoming Vatican synod approaches the environmental concerns around the fires as a major part of the sustainability of the Catholic Church in the Amazon and among indigenous communities, as the National Catholic Reporter noted. The gathering will focus “first on lifting up the voices of the people of the Amazon, then on the need for a new, integral ecology in the face of so much environmental destruction, and finally on the challenges the church in the region faces in being more prophetic.” Meanwhile, Bolsonaro reportedly dismissed the synod’s “leftist agenda.”
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Source: Christianity Today