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Face of religion changing in Brazil

Pope's upcoming visit prompts the question: What does it mean for Brazil to be "the world's largest Catholic country"?
Last modified: 17 Jul 2013 22:42
[Photo: EPA]

Pope Francis will be in Brazil starting on Monday, the start of an ambitious, week-long visit coinciding with World Youth Day events, expected to bring over a million Catholic pilgrims, mostly youth, to Brazil.

It will be historic for all the obvious reasons: The first Latin American Pope, the first trip as pope to South America, neighboring his native Argentina.

No doubt if you follow Pope Francis' journey next week you will hear many times that Brazil is 'the world's largest Catholic country.'

True. But what exactly does that mean?

I dug through the latest census data to try to get a better sense on the most reliable figures on religion in Brazil.

I wanted to get a snapshot of some of the challenges Pope Francis faces, and some potential opportunities as well.

Here is some of what I found:

According to a study by the IBGE, the government statistics agency, the number of Brazilians who self identified themselves as Catholic in 1970 was 91percent. That dropped to 89 percent in 1980, 73 percent in 2000, and 64 percent in 2010.

Meanwhile, those who self-identified as evangelical were only 5 percent in 1970, 6 percent in 1980, 14 percent in 2000, before jumping to 22 percent by 2010.

The thought of having "no religion" was unthinkable in Brazil in the 1970s when less than one percent of the population identified themselves as such.  But by 2000 it was up to 7 percent, and by 2010 8 percent.

While the percentages do not look good for the Catholic Church in Brazil, digging deeper into the IBGE data revels the raw numbers paint a more promising picture.

The total population of Brazil is 198.4 million, as of last year. Of the total population, 169.3 million identify themselves generally speaking as Christian, and of those, 123 million strictly identify as Roman Catholic (123,280,172 to be exact), while another 42 million Protestant.

But it's the fast growing evangelical/Pentecostal religions that seem to be the biggest challenges to the Catholic Church in Brazil.

The largest is the Assembly of God, which has gone from 8.5 million adherents in 2000, to 12.3 million today.

After that, 2.2 million people said in the census they follow the Congregation of Christ in Brazil church, followed by 1.8 million who say they worship the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God and another 1.8 million for the Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

Slightly over six million Brazilians self identify as being from some other off-shoot of evangelical or Pentecostal church.

Other facts: 15.3 million Brazilians said they are of no religion, while  1.3 million Brazilians are Jehovah's Witness; 226,000 are Mormon; 407,000 are Umbanda (An African religious offshoot); 107,000 say they practice Judaism and about 35,000 say they are practicing Muslims.

And there were 885,536 people who said they have not decided what religion they are and/or didn't want to declare their faith in the survey.

In short, the Vatican can still rely on Brazil to be the place of the largest pool of ardent Catholics anywhere in the world.

But it's not the absolute numbers that should concern Pope Francis, it's the trend lines.

Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel