(Photo: Reuters/Paulo Whitaker)
Over half a million Christians gathered throughout Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, last week to partake in "March for Jesus," an annual event intended to showcase the country's growing evangelical population.
The march was held under the slogan "I belong to Jesus. I am a champion," in honor of the participants' faith and the upcoming 2014 FIFA World Cup, which Brazil is hosting beginning June 12. Many proclaimed the theme on jersey-style T-shirts, printed in the colors of the Brazilian flag and the national team's uniforms.
"We're here to represent our faith and show the strength of the evangelical population, which continues to grow," said Jardson Carioca, a 30-year-old bus driver who attended the march with 50 other members of his church, reports Hispanic news outlet Mundo Cristiano.
According to police, the hundreds of thousands of Christians that participated in this year's "March for Jesus" event are just a small part of the nation's burgeoning evangelical population, since the event usually draws a crowd between one and two million each year.
Although Brazil has more Catholics than any other country in the world, Catholicism is currently facing a huge challenge from evangelicals. The number of Catholics dropped from 125 million in 2000 to 123 million in 2010, according to the 2013 Brazilian census data. During the same time period, the number of Pentecostals in the South American nation rose from 26 million to 42 million.
Now, evangelical denominations are booming throughout Brazil with the help of various forms of communication such as television, radio and social media networks that churches use to draw millions of Christians away from the Roman Catholic Church.
The shift of Catholics leaving their religion for Protestantism has even garnered the attention of Pope Francis, who addressed the issue last year by challenging Brazilian bishops to simplify their message to one of love, forgiveness and mercy. He also emphasized that they should create personal relationships with parishioners, as the evangelical church is accustomed to doing.
"At times we lose people because they don't understand what we are saying, because we have forgotten the language of simplicity and import an intellectualism foreign to our people," he said, according to Catholic News Service. "Without the grammar of simplicity, the church loses the very conditions which make it possible to fish for God in the deep waters of his mystery."
'March for Jesus' is just one of many marches taking place in Brazil, leading up to the FIFA World Cup. Although the event was a peaceful demonstration, thousands more have taken to the streets across the country to protest the soccer tournament to demand better public services such as education and health care, while highlighting social corruption and the high cost of staging the World Cup.
March for Jesus is also considered one of Brazil's most popular events, for attracting more participants than Sao Paulo's Gay Pride Parade and the popular Salvador Carnival celebration.