RIO DE JANEIRO – Rio de Janeiro Mayor Marcelo Crivella did the unthinkable over the last week: He snubbed the city's legendary Carnival.
And in doing so, the retired Pentecostal bishop exposed sharp divisions in a society known for easygoing attitudes toward sex and celebration but with a large-and-growing evangelical community that loathes a bacchanalia famed for its round-the-clock partying and overt sexual displays.
Crivella's unheard-of decision to stand up organizers at the Rio Carnival's opening ceremony Friday night, then skip the city's most important event entirely over the next several days, became one of the most talked about aspects of this year's bash. It even led to accusations that his seemingly hands-off approach could have been a factor in two float accidents that happened during the Carnival's central parades. Previous mayors have been front-and-center of lavish Carnival ceremonies.
"There is no bigger job for a mayor than to follow closely everything that happens during Carnival," wrote Folha de S.Paulo columnist Alvaro Costa e Silva. "The recent (accidents) were related to a lack of regulation" by city authorities.
But many evangelicals celebrated his decision to snub a festival they frown upon.
"Crivella is a good man, a bishop," said Maria Figuera, an 80-year-old member of a chapter of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, Crivella's church. "As an evangelical, he should not be part of Carnival."
Carnival was always going to put the evangelical mayor in a tight spot. In the weeks leading up to the bash, Cariocas, as Rio residents are known, joked about whether Crivella might be photographed with a half-naked samba dancer or next to floats inspired by Afro-Brazilian religions like Candomble and Umbanda.
Still, Crivella, who took power Jan. 1 after winning 59 percent of the vote, had promised not to let his faith get in the way of governing. Many argued that he broke that promise with Carnival.
"When I read that the mayor wasn't coming, it was as if he was saying that the 70,000 people who come to the Sambadrome and all the millions in the streets were bad people because we like Carnival," said 18-year-old reveler Carla Ferraz. "He should be a better host."
In lengthy statement Wednesday, Crivella said he decided not to go to the Sambadrome because "in my case it would have been demagogy."
"People of Rio reject a mayor with a mask, even during Carnival," he wrote, apparently alluding to the clash between his religious beliefs and the celebrations.
Crivella said that during the festivities, he was focused on the safety of the city, and that his team had met to revise regulations so there are not future accidents during parades.
Evangelicals have enjoyed a growing role in politics in Brazil, a center of extraordinary growth for their churches and also home to more Catholics than any other country in the world.
Twenty-two percent of Brazilians currently identify as evangelical Christians, up from 5 percent in 1970. Congress' "evangelical bloc," representing about a fifth of seats in both chambers, has emerged as a political force that was influential in President Dilma Rousseff's removal last year and pushes for conservative laws.
Still, many Brazilians reject evangelicals, seeing them as judgmental and contrary to an easygoing attitude that is pervasive in the culture.
For many, those beliefs were reinforced by Crivella's handling of the situation.
On Friday night, Crivella stood up the ceremony in which the mayor traditionally hands a symbolic key to the city to Rei Momo, or the king of carnal delights. After the organizers spent hours waiting, key in hand and looking dejected, the mayor sent the head of Rio's tourism agency, who apologized and said Crivella's wife was sick. Revelers didn't buy the excuse, and their suspicions increased when two nights later the mayor and his wife, looking to be in fine health, were seen watching tennis at the Rio Open.
"Crivella was the only Carioca who didn't do anything during Carnival: he didn't party and he didn't work," said taxi driver Rafael do Nascimento. "I expected better."
Nor did Crivella attend any of the parades at the Sambadrome, which began Saturday with second-tier schools and ended Tuesday with the most famous ones.
After a float crashed into the crowd and injured 20 people on Sunday, revelers started speaking of a curse because the mayor skipped the opener. The talk was reinforced Tuesday when part of another float collapsed and injured 11 people. Five people are still in hospital, one in serious condition.
Crivella replied to critics by visiting victims of the accidents in the hospital and posting videos on his Facebook page. That decision was lauded by hundreds who chimed in on Crivella's page.
"There are more important things than handing over the key to open Carnival," wrote Elisangela Domingues.