Members of the Mangueira samba school perform in March 2019 during Rio's carnival parade and will perform again on Sunday as part of carnival 2020, in a show with a special message about tolerance. — AFP/AFP Photo
RIO DE JANEIRO — The sanctuary at her evangelical mega-church in Rio de Janeiro is where Eleonor Teresa Sousa comes to feel closer to God, and farther from the sin of a city gearing up for carnival.
Sousa, 75, proudly counts herself among the conservative Christians in Brazil who condemn the show planned this year by the reigning champions of Rio's world-famous carnival, the Mangueira samba school.
Mangueira will parade on Sunday in the first of two nights of flesh-flaunting, sequin-studded spectacle by 13 samba schools vying to be this year's champions.
Worse, to the fundamentalists, is the story all those glittering bodies will tell.
In a Brazil deeply polarized by President Jair Bolsonaro's far-right politics, Mangueira is planning a show with a message: It will depict Jesus returning to Earth in one of the city's impoverished favelas, in the body of a
black woman with indigenous roots, and preaching a message of tolerance.
That has ignited inevitable controversy in Brazil, where Bolsonaro has the fervent backing of a burgeoning conservative Christian community, and many people are talking of a "culture war" since he took office last year.
Sousa, who belongs to one of Brazil's biggest churches, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, which claims eight million members in the country, said she feels "completely offended".
"That's not the Jesus of the Bible. It's blasphemy," she said after her morning prayers.
More than 100,000 people have signed an online petition accusing Mangueira of "defiling the son of God," launched by a conservative Catholic group, the Plinio Correa de Oliveira Institute.
Revisionist versions of Jesus are already a touchy subject in Brazil. Last year, the Brazilian comedy film "The First Temptation of Christ" depicted Jesus as gay, causing outrage among conservative Christians when it premiered on Netflix.
On Christmas Eve, masked attackers fire-bombed the production company's offices.
'Cry against fascism'
People tend to see things differently in Mangueira, the poor favela that is home to the samba school, where the hillside shacks have a view -- albeit distant -- of Rio's iconic Christ the Redeemer statue, his arms outstretched over the city.
"This (show) is a cry of freedom from Mangueira against the fascism that's taken over our country," said Marcus Portugal Feital, 61, a member of Mangueira's "community wing."
"This is the real Christ, the one who protects the vulnerable, the blacks in the ghettoes: everything Bolsonaro and company don't do," he added outside a recent Mangueira rehearsal, as hundreds of people danced and sweated to the thundering beat of the percussion section inside.
"If Jesus Christ came to the world today and was born poor in a favela, he would be massacred," added fellow member Consuelo Cavalcante, 58, referring to a surge in police killings in Rio de Janeiro state since Bolsonaro took office.
The show's central samba song features a veiled protest against Bolsonaro's version of Christianity and his hardline policies.
One lyric rejects the idea of a "Messiah with gun in hand." "Messiah" (Messias, in Portuguese) is gun-rights advocate Bolsonaro's middle name.
License to offend
There is a long history of tension between carnival -- the last lascivious free-for-all before the 40-day asceticism of Lent -- and conservative Christian values.
But in Bolsonaro's Brazil, carnival has become particularly politicised.
Mangueira won last year with a show that paid tribute to Rio councilwoman Marielle Franco, an outspoken black and lesbian activist who was murdered in 2018.
Other schools have also picked politically charged themes this year, including the environment and indigenous, black and women's rights -- all issues on which Bolsonaro regularly offends his critics.
Adding to the climate of division, Rio's current mayor, Marcelo Crivella, an evangelical pastor, has openly criticized carnival's booze-driven escapades and eliminated the 28 million reals (US$6.4 million) of annual public funding to the top samba schools.
Politics has always been part of carnival, going back to the abolition of slavery in Brazil in the late 19th century, said historian and writer Luiz Antonio Simas.
"But there are times when that's more explicit... And this is one of those times," he said.
"The rise of a reactionary, ultra-conservative government allied with...
Christian fundamentalists has naturally created a clash with the carnival community." — AFP