SAO PAULO, Brazil – The body of a strangled toddler was found inside the baptismal basin of an evangelical church in southern Brazil, officials said Monday.
Eighteen-month-old Gabrielli Cristina Eichholz was found dead Saturday during services at the recently inaugurated Seventh-day Adventist Church in the city of Joinville, 250 miles southwest of Sao Paulo, said police inspector Rubens Passos de Freitas.
"Gabrielli was raped and then strangled to death. Her killer or killers also hit her over the head with a heavy blunt object," Freitas said.
No one has been arrested, and Freitas said police have no suspects. Parishioners of the small church were filtering in and out Monday, saying they were praying for the girl's soul.
"Everyone is in shock," church spokesman Felipe Lemos said. "Nothing like this has ever happened in any of our churches anywhere in the world."
Relatives had taken the girl to the church Saturday morning and left her in a room with some 20 other children being cared for by four members of the church, Freitas said. After the services, Gabrielli's relatives went to the room to look for her but she was not there.
Parishioners found her floating face down in the baptismal basin, which is next to the altar but placed in such a way that "no one could see the water or anything else inside," Freitas said.
The local O Catarinense newspaper quoted one of the women who had been caring for the children as saying that Gabrielli had been picked up from the room by a man claiming to be her father.
"I can't understand how something like this could happen inside a church," Gabrielli's mother, Andreia Pereira Eichholz, told Joinville's A Noticia newspaper. "I want to know who grabbed my daughter. I don't feel any anger or hate. I just want to understand why."
Brazil's rampant crime is usually associated with its major cities, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, and the thriving drug trade. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has made fighting violent crime one of the cornerstones of his second term in office.