The Prayer of Saint Francis welcomes worshipers to Adolfo Zon’s riverside cathedral in this far-flung Amazon outpost: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”
But when the 63-year-old bishop sets off from his Amazonian sanctuary this week and boards a plane for Rome, he will be travelling to the frontline of a smouldering political skirmish between a left-leaning, green-minded Argentine pope and Brazil’s far-right, climate skeptic president, Jair Bolsonaro.
“We must use, but not abuse Amazonia,” said Zon, leaving little doubt on which side of the battle lines he stands.
Zon, the Spanish bishop of the Alto Solimões, a vast diocese along Brazil’s tri-border with Peru and Colombia, is one of more than 100 bishops from nine Amazon countries preparing to meet at the Vatican for the Synod for the Amazon.
Pope Francis’ three-week conclave, which starts on 6 October, is tasked with pondering the church’s future in a sprawling and complex region where it is rapidly shedding believers to Pentecostal congregations.
Among the controversial moves set to be discussed are allowing older married men to be ordained and speeding up the training of indigenous priests.
“The more we can be physically present, the more meaningful our presence can be,” Zon said during a post-mass interview on his veranda overlooking the River Solimões.
But it is the gathering’s green focus that has triggered a political storm in Brazil, which controls about 60% of the Amazon region and has, since January, been governed by a far-right administration that has dismantled environmental protections and overseen a dramatic surge in deforestation.
Brazil’s answer to MI5 – Abin – has reportedly been mobilized in at least four Amazon cities to keep tabs on clergy involved in the synod.
“We are worried and we want to neutralize this thing,” said general Augusto Heleno, Bolsonaro’s hawkish institutional security minister, in an interview with O Estado de São Paulo newspaper in February. The newspaper claimed Bolsonaro’s government was anxious about the synod’s “leftist agenda” and its potential to embarrass Brazil on the world stage.
Another influential Brazilian general, Eduardo Villas Bôas, claimed the synod would “certainly be exploited by environmentalists” and vowed Brazil would not tolerate foreign “interference” in its domestic affairs.
Bolsonaro – who is nominally Catholic but has aligned himself with conservative sectors of Brazil’s Pentecostal church – has done little to conceal his own displeasure.
In June, he responded tetchily after the pope criticised “the blind and destructive mentality” of those wrecking the rainforest. “Brazil is the virgin that every foreign pervert wants to get their hands on,” Bolsonaro told reporters.
Zon, who has lived in the region for nearly half his life, tried to shrug off reports that he had become a target for Brazil’s intelligence services. “I have friends in Abin,” he laughed.
He also denied the synod was designed to undermine Bolsonaro. “This is my government. Why would I want to harm it?”
In August, Brazilian bishops condemned their treatment in an open letter that said: “We regret immensely that today, rather than receiving support and encouragement, our leaders have been criminalized as enemies of the fatherland”.
The letter made no explicit reference to Bolsonaro but condemned “the violent and irrational aggression against nature” and the “unscrupulous destruction of the forest, which is killing ancient flora and fauna with criminally started fires”.
Erwin Kräutler, the former bishop of the Amazon’s Xingu region, told the Guardian this year’s fires were “a true apocalypse” for which Bolsonaro was to blame.
Bolsonaro backers have hit back at what they paint as a left-wing plot to humiliate their leader and undermine Brazilian sovereignty over the Amazon.
In a series of conspiratorial videos, the Bolsonarista blogger Bernardo Küster painted synod-bound bishops as meddlesome Liberation theologists aligned with prominent Brazilian leftists such as former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
The synod’s preparatory document, Instrumentum Laboris, was a “disastrous” collection of “eco-theology crap”, Küster added.
Mauricio López, the executive secretary of the group responsible for compiling that document – the Red Eclesial Pan Amazónica (Repam) – denied the synod was anti-Bolsonaro.
“We are not the enemy,” López insisted, claiming the summit was designed to denounce “oppressive structures and inequalities” in the Amazon.
“It is not about confronting any government – actually we want to collaborate,” López added, voicing alarm over rising deforestation and the plight of the Amazon’s indigenous people.
“It is about the future of those [Amazon] communities and also, at the end of the day, about the future of the planet.”
Joaquín Humberto Pinzón, a bishop from the Colombian Amazon, said attacks on the synod reflected how powerful political and economic actors were unhappy with efforts to raise awareness of the Amazon’s ecological importance. “It doesn’t suit them – neither the politicians, nor the business people, nor the owners of the big mining companies,” Pinzón said.
Zon was religiously diplomatic, not once mentioning the name Bolsonaro.
“The synod is a political act – but with a small ‘p’. It isn’t partisan,” he claimed. “The Church isn’t against anyone. It is against injustice.”
But Zon’s concern over Brazil’s populist tack was palpable as he described how decades of social advances were now “going down the plug hole”.
“Today, for me, we are lost politically - in Brazil and in the world. Don’t tell me the United States is a model – or England either,” Zon said.
“I hope things will turn around … [because] today it seems to me … from what little I know of history, like the 1920s again, which was the basis for the arrival of fascism.”
“Why is the extreme right growing today? Because people are searching for a saviour,” Zon mused as he stared out across one of the world’s mightiest waterways.
“But saviours are dangerous. So far we’ve only had one – and where did he end up? On the cross.”
The Guardian travelled to the Amazon with support from the Red Eclesial PanAmazónica and Cidse, an international alliance of development agencies that includes the UK’s Catholic Agency For Overseas Development (Cafod) and the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund (Sciaf)