Brazil's outrage over 'racist' evangelical politician

Protesters demand the resignation of Marco Feliciano Marco Feliciano's appointment has stirred a wave of protests both in Brazil and abroad

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Human rights and minority interests are a sensitive matter in many countries, but in Brazil they are now at the centre of an unprecedented controversy.

The politician charged with overseeing these issues in the lower house of Brazil's congress stands accused of racism and homophobia.

It is a claim that pastor and Christian Social Party politician Marco Feliciano denies but which has nevertheless incited a wave of anger.

Mr Feliciano was the only candidate for the post of president of the Human Rights and Minority Commission.

His election was guaranteed by an agreement among various parties as they shared out key posts in the country's congress.

'Noah's curse'

The commission has a sensitive role looking at everything from issues of potential human rights violations to prospective legislation.

File photo of Marco Feliciano Marco Feliciano has denied that he holds racist or homophobic views

In recent years, it has discussed and proposed laws covering sexual exploitation of children, torture, and the running of nursing homes.

Many campaign groups concerned with minority affairs see the committee as having a critical role in defending their rights.

So when Mr Feliciano's thoughts on homosexuality and people of African descent emerged on social networks after his election, there was first concern, then anger.

The most contentious comments precede his appointment, when he was little known outside his native state of Sao Paulo.

Writing on Twitter, Mr Feliciano said that "Africans descend from an ancestry cursed by Noah". He also argued that "the curse that Noah cast on his grandson, Canaan, spills over on the African continent, hence the famine, pestilence, disease, ethnic wars!".

In another comment, he wrote that the "rot of homosexual feelings leads to hatred, crime, rejection".

Mr Feliciano has denied being homophobic or racist, but anger about his comments has only spread further the more people heard about them.

Since his appointment in early March, protests by activists have repeatedly disrupted the commission's work. Demonstrations have even spread abroad with people protesting outside the Brazilian embassy in Paris.

A high-profile campaign has collected 450,000 signatures calling for his resignation.

Congressional leaders have also dropped their support for the pastor and asked him to step down.

Mr Feliciano declined to speak to the BBC about the allegations.

In previous statements, he denied being prejudiced against gay people, but said that he was "against their practices, their promiscuity".

He also denied allegations of racism, saying that his mother and stepfather are black.

Powerful friends

Despite the controversy surrounding him, Mr Feliciano enjoys the support of a powerful group of conservative evangelical legislators.

An evangelical church service in Rio de Janeiro Evangelical churches have grown in Brazil, and with them their political influence

His Christian Social Party is a key force in the "evangelical bloc", a congressional group mainly made up of pastors and followers of evangelical churches.

The group has doubled in size over the past decade and can now count on 70 deputies and three senators, up from 36 legislators in 2003.

Philosophy Prof Roberto Romano of the University of Campinas in Sao Paulo State says Mr Feliciano's rise mirrors the growth of evangelical churches in Brazil.

"Until the mid-20th Century, when there was an almost absolute majority of Catholics in the country, the presence of evangelicals in politics was minimal," he says.

"Since then, the growth in the number of followers of Protestant churches has been reflected in political representation."

And neither Mr Feliciano nor his backers seem to want to give up their new-found influence without a fight.

He is helped by the fact that the rules governing the Human Rights and Minority Commission do not allow for his impeachment.

And while congressional leaders and several of his colleagues have urged Mr Feliciano to step down to put an end to the controversy, he recently said on television that only death could part him from his post.

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