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Covid kills 18 priests in the Amazon, worsensing Catholicism's regional challenges

Of the 69 Catholic priests who died in Brazil due to the coronavirus, 18 worked in the Amazon. Marred by a small clerical presence and the growth of neo-Pentecostal churches, proportionally, the region has the seen the highest number of covid-19 deaths among priests in the entire country. “Here in the Archdiocese, a priest serves more than 80 communities. So, you can imagine the impact of such a loss”, reports Don Leonardo Steiner, the archbishop of Manaus, the Amazonas state capital, located in Brazil’s northern region. “It’s a big loss, because it reduces our presence. The communities in the Amazon region are very numerous and at the same time, very far from each other”, affirmed the cleric. The distances between communities in the Amazon are incomparable to those in other regions of the country, which also makes it difficult to care for those infected”. Brasil de Fato contacted the six largest Christian denominations active in the country for a story about priests, pastors and bishops infected or killed by covid-19. So far, only the Catholic Church has responded. Our newsroom awaits an answer from the following churches: the Assembly of God, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, the Brazilian Baptist Convention, the Christian Congregation and the Quadrangular Church. According to the most recent data from the National Commission for Elders (CNP), released in February of this year, 131 Catholic priests were infected with covid-19 in the country’s northern region. Across the nation, there were 1.455 cases of covid-19 accross 278 dioceses. Why so many deaths in the Amazon Father José Adelson Rodrigues, the CNP president, affirms that the Amazon region requires an above-average commitment from priests. “As we are in small numbers, the bishops want the priests to be closer to the people,” he says. Contact with vulnerable populations would help explain the high number of infections and deaths in the Amazon. “You have to be among the people, you cannot leave. You have to pay heed to the neediest, to those who are starving, and then the priests end up being contaminated, feeling the pain of the people. For us, this is a challenge”, adds Rodrigues. Before the local government enacted any social distancing policies, the Archdiocese of Manaus had already suspended catechisms, masses and clergy meetings. In-person liturgical rites restarted during the second half of 2020, and were again suspended earlier this year, having resumed the week before Easter with a series of precautions in place. “There was no carelessness on our part. We did not carry out any of the big processions here in Manaus for two consecutive years. We started to reopen as we saw it became possible, with the collaboration of the faithful”, says Don Leonardo Steiner. Replacing priests who died as a result of covid-19 is no easy task. “It has to be done through persuasion, seeing who identifies with the cause, who is really willing to go. There is a whole preparation. Some want to, but are prevented for health reasons. It is a very delicate region, with a lot of work”, emphasizes Rodrigues, president of the CNP. Lack of priests predates pandemic The rise of the evangelical presence, especially of neo-Pentecostal churches in the region, amplifies the challenges faced by the Catholic Church.  

Of the four states with the largest growth in the number of evangelicals between 1991 and 2010, three are in the Amazon – Acre (62.9%), Roraima (61.6%) and Amazonas (52.4%). The prognosis that there is a lack of priests in the north of the country is no secret. This was one of the issues that for example motivated the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region meeting, held in the Vatican between October 7th and 29th, 2019. According to Pope Francis, the aim was "to identify new ways of evangelizing the people of God in that region". Among the obstacles laid out by the Church, is the difficult access to some communities, the variety of languages and ways of life, agribusiness and mining interests, as well as the insufficient number of priests. However, the Head of the Catholic Church took a stand against the ordination of married men and women, although he was open to reflecting on the possibility of indigenous people acting as priests.

Edited by: Vivian Fernandes

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