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RIO DE JANEIRO – In a Brazilian presidential election marked by uncertainties, there is little doubt about one thing: Evangelical voters will have a major impact.
They could tip the balance thanks to their growing numbers, presence in remote areas and poor neighborhoods and organizational muscle, especially since corporations have been banned from making contributions directly to candidates in the wake of a the country's huge corruption scandal.
Attempts to woo evangelicals are apparent on the campaign trail ahead of the Oct. 7 election. In recent weeks, one leading candidate wept while receiving prayers during a service at an evangelical church. Another promised no legislative changes to Brazil's abortion ban. A third held meetings with several of the most influential pastors in Sao Paulo, Brazil's richest and most populist state.
"The evangelical vote is very organic in that pastors and bishops have a relationship with followers that influences how they vote," said Antonio Lavareda, who has written several books on Brazilian politics. "It's the opposite in the Catholic Church, where, despite having more congregants, priests have less direct influence."
Evangelicals already have a large influence in national politics. The so-called "evangelical bloc" in Congress is made up of 87 representatives and three senators, about 15 percent of all federal lawmakers.
Their votes were instrumental in the 2016 impeachment and ouster of President Dilma Rousseff for illegally managing the federal budget. Joao Campos, a congressman and pastor who helped lead the bloc, said then that opposing Rousseff was a way to defend the poor who had lost jobs in the wake of scandals over kickbacks from construction companies to politicians.
Evangelical voters in Rio de Janeiro also helped propel Marcelo Crivella, a bishop in the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, to mayor of Brazil's most famous city in 2016.
Brazil, a deeply religious country slightly larger than the continental U.S., is home to the world's largest number of Catholics — some 123 million, according to the latest census in 2010. But evangelicals are growing and now number 42 million, or about 20 percent of the total population.
And there is little comparison when it comes to political activism. While the Vatican frowns on clergy running for office, many evangelical leaders plunge into politics.
The influence of evangelicals extends into media. Edir Macedo, the founder of Crivella's church, owns Record TV, one of the largest broadcasters in Brazil. Evangelical churches are also major buyers of airtime, so religious programs can be seen at just about any time of the day.
Silas Malafaia, one of the most influential pastors in Brazil, makes no apologies for trying to influence the votes of parishioners from his more than 50 churches.
During a recent interview with The Associated Press, he said proudly he had helped elect 25 representatives and five senators. His own brother is a state representative for Rio de Janeiro.
"I help candidates get elected by lending them my image and words," said Malafaia, who from the pulpit and on social media argues that left-leaning candidates promote "moral garbage" with liberal stances on gay marriage and abortion.
Malafaia has been outspoken in his support for Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right congressman and former army captain who has promised to crack down on crime and root out corruption in politics.
"In Brazil, we need a macho like him," Malafaia said, adding that Bolsonaro will "defend all the values and principals of the Christian family."
Last weekend, Malafaia visited Bolsonaro in the hospital, where the candidate was recovering after being stabbed during a campaign event Sept. 6.
"God is an expert in turning chaos into a blessing," Malafaia said in a video that he posted on YouTube from Bolsonaro's hospital room.
Albanita Alves, a housewife who attends Malafaia's Assembly of God Victory in Christ Church in Rio de Janeiro, says she will follow her pastor.
"We have the liberty to choose our candidate," Alves said. "But as a man of God, (Malafaia) has a wider vision than we do, so it's important that we see his point of view."
Last month, Bolsonaro, who is Catholic, teared up while receiving a blessing at a Baptist church in Rio de Janeiro. Geraldo Alckmin, a former Sao Paulo governor who also is Catholic, was a special guest during a meeting of pastors in the state last month. Marina Silva, a former environmental minister who belongs to an evangelical church, recently promised evangelicals in Belo Horizonte, Brazil's third largest city, that any changes to abortion law would have to be done via plebiscite and not by Congress.
The evangelical vote could be more important than in the past because the electoral field is so splintered, with more than a dozen candidates scrambling for advantages.
Now that former President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva has been bumped off the ballot for a corruption conviction, Bolsonaro is leading in the polls — apparently with the aid of evangelical backers.
While he gets roughly 26 percent in polls of all voters, he is backed by 33 percent of voters who identify as evangelical, according to a poll by research institute Ibope released Tuesday.
Ten percent of evangelicals backed Alckmin and Marina Silva and 7 favored Ciro Gomes. Trailing behind so far was Fernando Haddad, who has taken over da Silva's spot for the left-leaning Workers' Party, though the poll was conducted before he received da Silva's formal endorsement for the presidential run.
The poll interviewed 2,002 people Sept. 8-10 and had a margin of error of two percentage points.
"Today the candidates most in line with our values are Alckmin and Bolsonaro, but we still need to talk to them to know what each is proposing," said Bishop Robson Rodovalho, a founder of Sara Nossa Terra, a network of evangelical churches across Brazil.