RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - What's being called "the holy war" began when an evangelical pastor on national television repeatedly kicked and slapped a ceramic image of the nation's patron saint.
Sergio von Helde, a senior pastor of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, called the likeness of Our Lady of Aparecida a "horrible, disgraceful doll" and told viewers of the Sao Paulo-based program The Awakening of Faith that the "Catholic Church lies. This image can't do anything for you."
Millions of Brazilians were outraged. About 110 million of the nation's 153 million inhabitants are [Roman] Catholic, making Brazil the world's largest Roman Catholic country. And Our Lady of Aparecida - a black version of the Virgin Mary - is to Brazil what Our Lady of Lourdes is to France or Our Lady of Fatima is to Portugal.
In the days that followed Mr. von Helde's attack last month, thousands of protesters took to the nation's streets carrying images of the saint. Others surrounded Universal temples, screaming obscenities and throwing rocks, eggs and tomatoes. In Rio de Janeiro, police were called to investigate several bomb threats against Universal temples.
From the Vatican, Pope John Paul II advised Brazilian [Roman] Catholics "not to answer evil with evil." In Rio, Archbishop Eugenio Sales told reporters that "unless we control our emotions, there is the risk of a holy war."
Indeed, the Brazilian press has been whipping up the war fever, with one major newspaper running a series of articles under the running label "holy war."
For many observers, however, Mr. von Helde's attack on the image merely brought to the surface the brewing rivalry between the [Roman] Catholic Church and scores of upstart Protestant sects, which over the years have been slowly robbing the [Roman Catholic] church of its followers.
In 1960, Latin American had only 7 million Protestants.
By 1990, that number had reached 51 million, according to the Worldwide Evangelisation Crusade.
In Brazil, the 1980 census showed that 89 percent of residents described themselves as [Roman] Catholic. Religious experts say that number has fallen to 70 percent of the population, while 20 percent, or about 30 million people, call themselves evangelicals.
According to a [Roman] Catholic Church study, 600,000 of their faithful convert annually to a Protestant denomination.
The speedy growth of the nation's Protestant churches has caused great concern to the [Roman] Catholic Church as it fights for the Brazilian hearts and minds. But the assault on the saint is the evangelical movement's boldest challenge to the establishment religion.
The Brazilian government lost no time in taking sides. The Sao Paulo police charged Mr. von Helde - a 36-year-old former Catholic - with violation of Penal Code 208 for "public discrimination and contempt against another religion," which could earn him up to one year in prison. State Congressman Afanazio Jazadji asked officials to force the pastor to submit to a psychiatric examination.
In the nation's capital, federal Congressman Paulo Paim asked the nation's attorney general to charge Mr. von Helde with racism, since Our Lady of Aparecida is Brazil's only black saint. The Ministry of Communications said it would investigate whether the pastor broke any communication laws.
President Fernando Henrique Cardoso also joined the fray.
"Brazil is a democratic country known for its tolerance," he said.
"Any manifestation of intolerance wounds its spirit of unity as well as its Christian spirit."
Mr. von Helde's Universal Church of the Kingdom of God is one of the nation's many Pentecostal churches. The Pentecostals, who interpret the Bible literally, have attracted millions of new followers, mostly among the poor.
The Universal church was founded 18 years ago in a converted Rio mortuary and is Brazil's fastest-growing evangelical church. In the past five years, it has increased its membership by 280 percent, from 900,000 to 3.5 million followers with 7,000 pastors and 2,100 temples, according to Veja, the nation's leading news magazine.
The church was founded by Edir Macedo, a former state lottery administrator and self-annointed bishop. Mr. Macedo, 50, is known for his fiery sermons about the "war between God and the devil" and how faith can cure nearsightedness, cancer and AIDS. At mass gatherings, he has often coaxed eyeglass wearers to pass their spectacles to the pulpit, where he stomps on them while declaring each wearer cured.
Mr. Macedo and other Universal pastors have long been giving rousing sermons against Catholics. They not only criticize their use of images but question Mary's virginity and refer to the Pope as "a false prophet" and the Vatican as "Babylonia."
Last April, Mr. Macedo told 210,000 followers crowded into a Sao Paulo soccer stadium that "the Catholic Church is a disgrace to the Third World."
But never before had any of his pastors been brazen enough to attack Brazil's most revered saint on network television. In fact, some observers believe the assault could be a mark of the church's growing strength.
"It [kicking the saint] showed that the Universal [church] now considers itself sufficiently strong enough to do what no other religion has ever done in Brazil - confront the [Roman] Catholic Church," said Veja .
Universal pastors preach that miracles depend not only on faith but the size of one's financial contribution to the church. Its members are urged to pay a monthly tithe of 10 percent of their salary. "If you don't pay God, you pay the devil," Mr. Macedo has often said.
Thanks to its massive donations, the church has purchased TV Record - the nation's third largest television network with 47 broadcasting stations - 30 radio stations, two publishing houses, a bank, a recording studio, a newspaper, a furniture factory and a tourist agency. Overseas, it has opened 300 churches in 46 countries, including 22 in the United States, where it has targeted the Hispanic population on Spanish-speaking cable television stations. It even has its own political party in Portugal.
According to the Rio daily O Globo, the Universal church is a $735 million-a-year enterprise, making Mr. Macedo the "CEO" of Brazil's 34th richest private company, ahead of such giants as Philip Morris and Goodyear. To administer his financial empire, Mr. Macedo is said to divide his time between homes in New York, Argentina and South Africa.
In the past four years, Mr. Macedo has been the target of several criminal investigations on suspicion of racketeering, tax evasion and illegal shipments of currency to overseas bank accounts.
Mr. Macedo, who rarely speaks to the press, insists that he has broken no laws. His lawyer, Marcio Thomaz Bastos, calls the investigation a product of an "inquisition against my client."
But even some fellow evangelicals have joined Mr. Macedo's critics.
"The Universal church is the object of frequent embarrassment and shame for the evangelical population," wrote the Brazilian Evangelical Association, a group representing 200 churches, in a recent document announcing its break with the Universal church. "Its practices impede others from becoming evangelists."
Indeed, anthropologist Rubem Cesar Fernandes, who has studied Brazil's evangelical movement, believes the incident over Our Lady of Aparecida may have "a sobering effect in [evangelical churches] attracting new followers. People will now look at them in a different way."
In the meantime, Mr. Macedo has apologized to Brazilian Catholics for his pastor's actions on TV Record. From his New York home, he said by telephone that Mr. von Helde "acted like a child" and that he would suspend him from his Sao Paulo post.
Mr. Macedo then blamed TV Globo, - the nation's largest television network - for "manipulating public sentiment" by repeatedly showing a videotape of the pastor kicking the saint on its popular news programs. Mr. von Helde later echoed that opinion. "TV Globo transformed me into a monster," he told a reporter.
The [Roman] Catholic Church, however, is not about to let the matter rest. Instead, its leaders have surprised many here by announcing several measures to to curb evangelical advances.
"Finally, after decades of losing ground to the evangelicals, the [Roman] Catholic Church has reacted," Mr. Fernandes said.
Catholic church leaders say they will: expand Life Network, a television network that disseminates church programs; initiate a three-year crusade to win over nonpracticing Catholics, estimated to be as high as 70 percent of its 110 million members; and change the emphasis of the Christian Base Communities - neighborhood religious groups - by stressing self-fulfillment.
"Edir Macedo accomplished two feats that previously seemed impossible," said a recent column in the daily Folha de Sao Paulo.
"He unified the [Roman] Catholic Church leadership that had been quarreling for years and woke up the faithful that had been indifferent to the Church's crisis."
Jack Epstein is a free-lance journalist based in Rio de Janeiro.