Evangelicals, growing force in Brazil, to impact elections

In this Sept. 2, 2018 photo, evangelicals raise their hands in prayer as they listen to a song during a service at the Assembly of God Victory in Chri

In this Sept. 2, 2018 photo, evangelicals raise their hands in prayer as they listen to a song during a service at the Assembly of God Victory in Chri

In this Sept. 2, 2018 photo, pastor Silas Malafaia points to his congregants during a service at the Assembly of God Victory in Christ Church, in Rio

In this Sept. 2, 2018 photo, pastor Silas Malafaia points to his congregants during a service at the Assembly of God Victory in Christ Church, in Rio

In this Sept. 2, 2018 photo, an evangelical kneels in prayer as she waits for pastor Silas Malafaia to speak at the Assembly of God Victory in Christ

In this Sept. 2, 2018 photo, an evangelical kneels in prayer as she waits for pastor Silas Malafaia to speak at the Assembly of God Victory in Christ

In this Sept. 2, 2018 photo, pastor Silas Malafaia delivers a sermon backdropped by a screen with a message that reads in Portuguese: " Reasons to pra

In this Sept. 2, 2018 photo, pastor Silas Malafaia delivers a sermon backdropped by a screen with a message that reads in Portuguese: " Reasons to pra

In this Sept. 2, 2018 photo, a woman makes a contribution using her debit card, to the Assembly of God Victory in Christ Church in Rio de Janeiro, Bra

In this Sept. 2, 2018 photo, a woman makes a contribution using her debit card, to the Assembly of God Victory in Christ Church in Rio de Janeiro, Bra

In this Sept. 2, 2018, photo, a woman distributes leaflets that features evangelical pastor Silas Malafaia with two political candidates, to congregan

In this Sept. 2, 2018, photo, a woman distributes leaflets that features evangelical pastor Silas Malafaia with two political candidates, to congregan

In this Sept. 2, 2018, photo, a woman holds her bible, and an electoral leaflet promoting two candidates that was distributed at the Assembly of God V

In this Sept. 2, 2018, photo, a woman holds her bible, and an electoral leaflet promoting two candidates that was distributed at the Assembly of God V

This Sept. 2, 2018 photo shows a political sticker that features evangelical pastor Silas Malafaia with two political candidates on the back window of

This Sept. 2, 2018 photo shows a political sticker that features evangelical pastor Silas Malafaia with two political candidates on the back window of

FILE - In this Aug. 29, 2016 file photo, Senate leader Renan Calheiros points to an exit as suspended President Dilma Rousseff looks to leave the Sena

FILE - In this Aug. 29, 2016 file photo, Senate leader Renan Calheiros points to an exit as suspended President Dilma Rousseff looks to leave the Sena

FILE - In this June 19, 2017 file photo, Mayor Marcelo Crivella talks with the media in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Evangelical voters helped propel Crive

FILE - In this June 19, 2017 file photo, Mayor Marcelo Crivella talks with the media in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Evangelical voters helped propel Crive

FILE - In this 1994 file photo, Bishop Edir Macedo, head of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, leads a service in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Mac

FILE - In this 1994 file photo, Bishop Edir Macedo, head of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, leads a service in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Mac

FILE - In this Sept. 5, 2018 file photo, Jair Bolsonaro, National Social Liberal Party presidential candidate, greets supporters during a campaign ral

FILE - In this Sept. 5, 2018 file photo, Jair Bolsonaro, National Social Liberal Party presidential candidate, greets supporters during a campaign ral

FILE - In this Sept. 8, 2018 file photo, Brazilian presidential candidate Marina Silva strikes a winner's pose as she campaigns in downtown Sao Paulo,

FILE - In this Sept. 8, 2018 file photo, Brazilian presidential candidate Marina Silva strikes a winner's pose as she campaigns in downtown Sao Paulo,

Geraldo Alckmin, presidential candidate with the Social Democratic Party, greets supporters as he campaigns in downtown Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Thursd

Geraldo Alckmin, presidential candidate with the Social Democratic Party, greets supporters as he campaigns in downtown Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Thursd

In this Sept. 12, 2018 photo, Ciro Gomes, presidential candidate with the Democratic Labor Party, holds up a miniature statue of "Padre Cicero," a pri

In this Sept. 12, 2018 photo, Ciro Gomes, presidential candidate with the Democratic Labor Party, holds up a miniature statue of "Padre Cicero," a pri

FILE - In this Sept. 9, 2018 file photo, supporters of Jair Bolsonaro, presidential candidate for the National Social Liberal Party who was stabbed du

FILE - In this Sept. 9, 2018 file photo, supporters of Jair Bolsonaro, presidential candidate for the National Social Liberal Party who was stabbed du

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — 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.