SAO PAULO (RNS) — In a recording reportedly made at a meeting with Brazilian mayors, President Jair Bolsonaro’s education minister, a Presbyterian pastor named Milton Ribeiro, can be heard saying he has been funneling funding to local governments under the direction of another evangelical leader.
“My priority is to attend first to the most needed municipalities and, in the second place, to attend to all that are (administered by) friends of Pastor Gilmar,” Ribeiro tells the mayors in a recording released by the Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo on March 21. “It was the special request from the president of the republic to me.”
The reference seems to be to Gilmar Santos, the pastor of an Assembly of God ministry named “Christ for Everybody” and head of the National Convention of Churches and Ministers of the Assembly of God, known by the Portuguese acronym Conimadb. Ribeiro also mentions Pastor Arilton Moura, another Conimadb leader, as an intermediary between his ministry and municipalities.
According to another report last week, this one in the newspaper O Estado de São Paulo, the two pastors, who have been spotted with Bolsonaro at official events at least since 2019, form a “clandestine cabinet” in the education ministry.
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Since the beginning of 2021, according to Folha de S. Paulo, the pastors have been negotiating with city governments about the release of ministry funds designated for school buildings and computers, daycare centers and other facilities.
Gilberto Braga, mayor of Luis Domingues, a tiny city in the northern state of Maranhão, also told O Estado de São Paulo that Pastor Moura asked him for one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of gold in exchange for the ministry’s funds for the city.
Considering the current gold price, the bribery requested by Moura would amount to $62,340. The meeting happened in April of 2021 in Brasília. Braga said he did not accept Moura’s request.
On March 22, Ribeiro released a statement saying that he did not favor any municipality with the ministry’s funds. He also denied that the president had asked him to attend all requests made by Pastor Santos’ friends. Bolsonaro has not mentioned the scandal since it became public.
“The president of the republic did not ask me to offer special treatment to anybody; he only requested me to welcome everybody who came to me, including the people mentioned in the news story,” the statement read.
Ribeiro added that funds are distributed among municipalities according to parameters established by law. “There is no possibility for the minister to determine the allocation of funds to favor or disfavor any municipality or State,” the statement said.
On March 24, Bolsonaro defended Ribeiro during a live transmission on social media, saying that he trusts him with his life and that he is a victim of cowards. He also mentioned that political groups want him to fire Ribeiro in order to suggest another name to replace him.
Before joining Bolsonaro’s cabinet, Ribeiro has been a leading member of the country’s main branch of Presbyterianism, the Presbyterian Church of Brazil. Known as IPB, the denomination has some 650,000 churchgoers.
Mackenzie Presbyterian Institute, a group that owns colleges, schools and an important university in São Paulo, is part of the IPB. Ribeiro has been in the past Mackenzie Presbyterian University’s acting president.
Members of the opposition in Brazil’s national Congress denounced Ribeiro to the Supreme Court on March 22 and demanded that he step down. On March 24, Supreme Court Justice Cármen Lúcia authorized the attorney general’s office to launch an inquiry into the case.
Evangelicals in the Brazilian Legislature, one of the most powerful blocs with 200 members, have been trying to distance themselves from Ribeiro. An evangelical pastor who has been an adviser to the bloc for several years told Religion News Service that they predict that Ribeiro will have to resign.
“The current administration has many members who do not have experience in politics and in media relations,” said the pastor, who requested anonymity. “People have to take care about what they say. Each one of his days in office from now on will be harmful (for the government),” the adviser said.
He said that the evangelical bloc is not calling for Ribeiro’s dismissal and wishes to “remain neutral” about the scandal, noting that “it was not responsible for suggesting Ribeiro to be Bolsonaro’s minister.”
According to Andrew Chesnut, a professor and religious studies expert at Virginia Commonwealth University, evangelicals are worried about the impact of the scandal on the upcoming elections in October, when a new president and new congressmen will be elected.
“Of course, the evangelical bloc is doing all possible to distance itself from the Ribeiro scandal, but it may be too late for the next election cycle,” he told RNS.
Chesnut emphasized that the case “reveals the unprecedented evangelical — specifically Pentecostal — influence on the Brazilian body politic.”
“Just as white evangelicals were Trump’s political base, evangelicals constitute the Brazilian president’s core constituency,” he said.
Alexandre Landim, a sociologist who specializes in the relations between religion and presidential elections in Brazil, told RNS that Bolsonaro offered to the Christian right “the fulfillment of their longtime political aspiration of becoming the Brazilian civic religion.”
“Ribeiro’s recording clearly demonstrates that evangelicals have been favored by the current administration. They have an unprecedented power now,” he said.
Landim recalled that Bolsonaro is not evangelical — he identifies as Roman Catholic, while his third wife is evangelical — but he has been representing conservative Christians in general.
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“That segment saw him as the man who could give it the share in power they wanted since the 1980s. But those leaders are pragmatic and will not stick with him if his reelection is not possible,” he affirmed.
Recent polls show that Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a former president who is running again in the fall election, ahead of Bolsonaro, has been successfully working to draw support among evangelicals for himself. A corruption scandal like Ribeiro’s may accelerate the process.
“Most evangelical leaders will probably keep supporting Bolsonaro now,” said Landim. “But if in September it becomes clear that he will not be victorious, they will probably leave him and support Lula.”