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Brazilian church and state divided over Pope John Paul visit

The Brazil that Pope John Paul II visited for two weeks this July is as divided following his 17,500-mile pilgrimage through its cities and countryside as it was when he first touched down at the starkly modern capital city of Brasilia.

In the view of many Brazil observers, the divisions between the church and Brazil's military-led government actually deepened during the Pontiff's visit. The Pope repeatedly criticized the government for human rights' violations and for failing to take care of the needs of Brazil's masses.

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The papal visit, however, may have sparked new life in the Brazilian church which has struggled for years with tepid support from the majority of Brazilians.

In going to Brazil, the world's most populous Roman Catholic nation, Pope John Paul was clearly intent on claiming that sprawling South American land for his church.

"I am here to proclaim christianity as the central fact in this land," he declared in Belo Horizonte. Later in Manaus, the river- front capital city for the vast three-million-square-mile Amazonia basin, he spoke of "keeping the doors wide open to the christ and your church."

More than half of Brazil's nearly 125 million people, however, reject Roman Catholicism openly or covertly -- and many of the rest have a rather cavalier attitude toward organized religion in general and Catholicism in particular. Many lean to African ritual religions.

There is little doubt that the Brazilian church's current social activism and support for Brazil's masses, who make up half the population, are giving the church a degree of acclaim that it would otherwise lack. This is not to suggest that the activism by bishops and priests is anything but sincere. Yet in adopting this course, the churchmen are pumping new life into their church.

Pope John Paul clearly associated himself with the activism.

In speech after speech, he took up the cudgels for the masses and said the church was the defender of the poor.He called for massive social reform and spoke of the church as a missionary force, seeking "to improve the life of the poor."

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The Pope called on government to give land, a "gift of God," to the poor. Alluding to maldistribution of property, he said in Recife, the major city in the impoverished Northeast of Brazil: "It is unacceptable that the general development of a society should exclude men and women of the field, precisely those who are ready to work it with their own hands and who need it to feed themselves."

This argument flies in the face of the Brazilian government's efforts to promote agribusiness, which in the past decade has revolutionized Brazilian agriculture and made Brazil one of the world's major food producers. Agribusiness eschews the parcelization of land into miniholdings and involves, instead, large tracks of land, farmed by huge business enterprises.

At almost every turn, Pope John Paul appeared to take issue with Brazil's military government and among the generals there was a good deal of resultant unhappiness over the Papal visit.

Although the government of General Joao Baptista de Oliveira Figureido provided everything from the presidential jet to government land and river vehicles to make the papal visit a smooth one, the military leaders and their civilian supporters in Brasilia were understandably angry over some of the Pope's words.

"He should look to the wealth of his church which he does not talk about before he talks about how we should run secular affairs," a Brazilian general said following the Pope's Recife speech on dividing up the land. "What of church lands? Shouldn't they be divided up?"

But for the church itself, the Pope's visit was clearly a plus. By emphasizing the church's role in defending the poor, Pope John Paul got rid of the ambiguity with which he left the issue during his trip to Mexico 16 months earlier. But whether he truly strengthened the church and its position in Brazil remains to be seen.

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