At Copacabana church, Catholic voters clash over Brazil election

"A real Christian votes for Lula!" a backer of the ex-president shouts at a voter for far-right President Jair Bolsonaro at a Catholic church in Rio de Janeiro, also serving as a polling station.

The atmosphere is highly charged after mass on Sunday at this church in Copacabana, as the country holds a cliffhanger vote between tainted leftist hero Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and his far-right nemesis.

Joana d'Arco Perina, a member of Lula's Workers' Party (PT) and fervent Catholic, is red-faced with anger as she listens to Elizabeth de Souza defending Bolsonaro, who Perina believes has "destroyed everything."

"Lula has made a pact with the devil! Bolsonaro was sent by God to save us," retorts De Souza, who is wearing a bright yellow and green shirt, the colors of the flag of Brazil that many believe has been hijacked by the president's supporters.

Her shirt bears the slogan: "My party is Brazil."

The 69-year-old retiree is also a staunch Catholic and believes the election is a "battle between good and evil," an argument put forth by First Lady Michelle Bolsonaro, a devoted evangelical.

Religion has been at the heart of a highly polarized election campaign in the nation of 215 million people, who are mostly Catholic, but with a third belonging to burgeoning evangelical churches.

In the final poll by the Datafolha institute on Saturday, Lula, 77, was leading among Catholics with 56 percent of votes, while Bolsonaro was the favorite of evangelical Christians with 65 percent.

Both parties boosted efforts to win votes among these groups in the campaign ahead of Sunday's run-off.

- Abortion, family -

Religion and traditional values have become a battleground, with Bolsonaro accusing Lula of seeking to shut churches and allow abortion, a sensitive question in the conservative country.

"Family is sacred to me," Lula said last week as he met with evangelical leaders. He has also denied plans to make abortion legal.

However, his last-ditch efforts to woo the faithful did not convince Edval Maximo, 41, who came to vote for Bolsonaro in the converted annex of the church.

"I have never heard Lula mention the word of God. He only brings it up now that he is on the campaign trail," said the green-eyed doorman of an apartment building in Rio.

"The left and the communists hate religion," he added, echoing an oft-repeated remark made by Bolsonaro.

Almost 60 percent of people polled by Datafolha said religion is crucial in their choice of candidate.

"I am against abortion. I vote for the person defending family: the 'Legend,'" said 67-year-old Magali Zimmermann, using a nickname for Bolsonaro.

However, religion is not the only factor in her choice.

"I love Copacabana, but I am scared to go out in the street because of thieves," said the resident of the well-off, touristy area which is home to many retirees.

"Bolsonaro is not perfect, but he will bring us security," added the widow, who never misses mass.

- God of the Left? -

At the back of the church, Eduardo Jorge swings side to side, his hands in the air, praising God. He is one of several faithful wearing a red T-shirt, the color of the PT. However, there are more people wearing green-and-yellow.

"I believe in a God who gives," the Lula supporter says after mass.

"Bolsonaristas use their faith to defend their interests rather than the poor. We need a Brazil which offers new opportunities and doesn't exclude people," said the 53-year-old social worker.

Esther Ferreira is wearing earrings in the shape of the Brazilian flag, a sign of support for Bolsonaro. She says she is voting for him "without hesitation" and hates the left.

"I am Catholic, but he could be atheist or Jewish and I would still vote for him," she told AFP.

Wilson Rodrigues Santos has a colorful tattoo of Jesus on his forearm. However, the Lula voter said religion did not play a part in his electoral choice.

"Everything has been catastrophic under Bolsonaro. Lula needs to come back, for education, health, public service... for everything."

ech/pt/fb/jhb/st