Provocative, charismatic and ambitious, Brazil’s evangelical pastor and lawmaker Marco Feliciano has become a lightning rod for nationwide criticism over his disparaging remarks about gays and blacks.
The affable 40-year-old maverick has proven adept at attracting the evangelical vote, and was elected president of the House of Deputies’ commission of human rights and minorities in March.
But human rights and black groups have blasted him for saying on Twitter that homosexual love leads to “hatred and crime,” and a reference to Noah’s biblical curse on descendants of his son Ham interpreted as a slight to blacks.
Feliciano, who bills himself as a “pastor, singer and businessman”, even said that John Lennon died because he offended God by suggesting that the Beatles were more famous than Jesus Christ.
“The Bible says God does not let this type of offense go unpunished,” Feliciano said in remarks gleaned from a video of a sermon he made at his church in 2005.
But the controversial pastor, who is married and the father of three daughters, has defiantly rejected steady calls for him to resign in this country of 194 million people, which Pope Francis will visit in July.
Feliciano — who is also under investigation for alleged embezzlement within his Pentecostal church — has vehemently denied being anti-gay or racist.
And he says he sees himself as a victim of a “gay dictatorship”, insisting that he is only against promiscuity.
“Gay activists want to impose their lifestyle on me. They accuse me of intolerance. But I have received death threats. My family was harassed,” he insisted in an interview with AFP.
And he dismissed as “preposterous” charges that he is racist, noting: “My mother and stepfather are black.”
For now, he presses on with his message — and tries to tamp down the firestorm that tends to follow him.
During a visit to Goiania, 200 kilometers (120 miles) south of the capital Brasilia, Feliciano poses for a picture with a black child on his way to an Assembly of God church.
There, he took the stage for a three-hour fiery sermon in front of hundreds of followers, many of them women, who cried, shouted and jumped throughout the proceedings, responding “Hallelujah” to his preachings.
— A presidential future? —
Feliciano says he hopes one day, the world’s biggest Catholic country will elect a Pentecostal Christian to the presidency.
Within 10 years, “it will be impossible to conduct politics without striking an alliance with evangelicals,” Feliciano says, adding when asked about his own presidential ambitions that he plans to “grow politically.”
Part of that growth could include a run for the Senate, Brazil’s upper house, next year.
“My name is Feliciano. I am considering running for the Senate. You know me. I am fighting for the family, I want to defend its sons and grandchildren. If you support abortion, don’t vote for me,” he says.
In 1996, Feliciano founded his own church within Brazil’s Assemblies of God fellowship.
And in 2010, he was elected deputy of the conservative Christian Social Democratic Party (PSC) in the state of Sao Paulo.
“Feliciano gained visibility. As the standard-bearer of anti-homosexuals who are many in Brazil, he is in a position to win more votes in Sao Paulo,” said Cesar Jacob, author of the book “Religion and societies in Brazilian capitals”.
“But he also inspires strong opposition,” he added. “I don’t think he can be elected (state) governor, let alone president.”
Yet Feliciano’s election to the human rights panel was seen as a sign of the growing political clout of evangelicals, who have 67 seats in the Congress out of a total 513, along with a media empire and a strong grassroots presence that transcends class.
While Catholics have seen their ranks decline from 74 percent of the population in 2000 to 64.6 percent in 2010, the percentage of Protestant evangelicals has soared during that decade from 15.4 percent to 22.2 percent.
Feliciano, who says he was raised as a Catholic but later converted to Pentecostalism after falling prey to drugs, remains unrepentant about the controversy that swirls around him.
“They sought to label me Brazil’s public enemy number one. But they have turned me into a celebrity, the hero of the Brazilian family,” he said.
“There were 40 demonstrations against me. They could not muster more than 5,000 people. In one service, I can attract 100,000 people.”