RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - When Antonio Soares da Silva was still in the womb, a spirit-worshipper looked into his future and saw a drug dealer. His mother saw a man of God. Both turned out to be right.
Da Silva snorted his first cocaine at 13, ran packets of the drug at “funk” parties in Rio de Janeiro slums, and soon was hooked on drugs, women, and the gangster life.
Now, at 29, he is Pastor Ezequiel -- a charismatic preacher whose exorcisms and fiery sermons boom through Vidigal, a shantytown perched high above one of Rio’s most beautiful beaches.
His journey from cocaine to Christ is no longer an unusual one in Rio’s slums, where Brazil’s growing evangelical Protestant churches are on the front line of the city’s drug wars.
With intense competition for souls among hundreds of evangelical denominations and a belief that anyone can be “saved,” pastors have reached out to the traffickers.
“There was a trafficker in the community who killed people, chopped them up and ate them -- drank their blood. Now he is a man of God,” the powerfully built pastor Ezequiel, wearing a cream-colored suit over a turquoise shirt, said before a recent sermon.
“What is behind the men who kill and take drugs is the Devil -- the Devil is imprisoning them. Vidigal can’t be known as place of traffic; it must be known as a place of God.”
Pastors have been known to preach on stage at the wild funk parties in slums that are financed by drug gangs.
One pastor, known as Marcos, says he has rescued several hundred traffickers from imminent execution after trials by “tribunals” run by drug gangs, and helped them find God.
And once a drug trafficker goes to prison, he is ripe for conversion: evangelical prisoners are often housed in separate wings that are the envy of other inmates for their cleanliness and strict order -- with parallels to the appeal of Islam in U.S. prisons.
For drug bosses, good relations with the local pastor make the community easier to control. Sometimes, the two can even find themselves unlikely allies, such as when they defend their community from perceived police abuses.
The pastors and the drug traffickers have become so close in some places that there is a growing unease over the relationship.
“As traffickers have become stronger, they have started to try to have more control over religion in different slums,” said Maria das Dores Campos Machado, a professor at Rio’s Federal University who has studied evangelicals. “At the same time, as churches have grown, they have less control over pastors.”
One result has been that traffickers in some slums get tattoos of the Christian cross on their arms and stop taking drugs themselves -- but continue to sell them to others and to kill their rivals.
“I think it’s quite dangerous for the evangelicals to have this kind of connection, because it brings them more prejudice from society,” Campos Machado added.
But slum dwellers have few other options, with many left behind by the economic gains enjoyed by the rest of the country under President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and feeling abandoned by a Catholic church they see as out of touch.
With about 70 percent of the population, or 125 million members, the Catholic church can still claim Brazil as its biggest global stronghold.
But Protestant churches, with a personalized brand of salvation and financial self-improvement that is particularly attractive to the poor, account for 15 percent, triple the number of members in 1980.
“The preachers come from there and they don’t deny the people’s reality,” said Vera Malaguti, a sociologist at the Rio Institute of Criminology.
Politicians on both the right and left had abandoned the slums, she said. “The traffickers are dying every day. The pastors built an option for them; we didn‘t.”
As in many slums, there are only two real powers in Vidigal -- the dominant drug gang and religion. The presence of the authorities is felt only during a police raid.
More than 20 evangelical churches, most of them in ramshackle buildings little bigger than people’s homes, vie for the faithful representing denominations such as the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God and The Assembly of God.
As the Thursday night service warms up, Pastor Ezequiel begins the evening’s exorcisms, sending several women spinning to the floor where they lie for minutes, crying, heaving, and trembling, but finally free of the Devil.
From his wheelchair, Felipe Quintino Nunes joins in by raising his arms and hugging his fellow worshipers in between shouts of “Glory to God!”
Later, they carry him in his wheelchair out of the church and back down the slum’s steep, narrow alleyways that would otherwise be impossible for him to access.
Shot in the back and paralyzed during a shootout with a rival drug gang, Nunes found Christ when evangelicals came to visit him in hospital. They took him to a rehabilitation center on the outskirts of Rio, where for two years he prayed and studied the Bible with other ex-traffickers.
“God saved me. God has done marvelous things with my life,” the 26-year-old said. “Most of my friends are still in the traffic, people I grew up with. I tell them there is no future -- you can just die, go to jail or end up on the streets.”