RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Pope Francis arrives this evening in Rio de Janeiro for a weeklong visit celebrating World Youth Day. Hundreds of thousands of Catholics have made the pilgrimage to see the Argentine-born pontiff, and he is expected to receive a rapturous welcome.

Still, Pope Francis' visit comes at a delicate time for the Roman Catholic Church in Brazil. Catholicism - still the main religion there - is facing a huge challenge from evangelicals. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro begins her report at a rival gathering ahead of the pope's visit.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: I'm at the evangelical fair in Sao Paul. Perhaps not coincidentally, it's been scheduled to run right before Pope Francis' historic visit to Brazil. It's a massive event. There are over 200 stalls scattered around me right now, and thousands of visitors have come here over the last few days.

Christianity is booming business in Brazil. Not only are the major evangelical superstar pastors represented here; but also, groups like Sony Music have booths here as well.

LUCAS AND RENAULT LOURENCO: (Singing in foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's the evangelical version of the boy band. Brothers Lucas and Renault Lourenco have been singing together since they were in their teens. Now, they're in their early 20s, sporting matching faux hawks and wearing jeans; and they are here to reach out to their established fans and sell records to new ones. This is Renault.

RENAULT LOURENCO: (Through translator) This fair attracts many people, even people who are not evangelicals; which is essential because that way, people will know the Gospel and so every day, there will be even more of us evangelicals.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And there are more every day. Recent polls show that evangelical Christianity is the fastest growing sect in Brazil. According to the Pew Research Center, 22 percent of the Brazilian population identifies as evangelical Christian; that's up from only 5 percent in 1970. And in bad news for the Catholic Church, most of them switched from Roman Catholicism. These days, only about 62 percent of people in Brazil say they are Catholic although in absolute numbers, this still makes Brazil the country with the most Catholics in the world. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: According to the Pew Research Center, 65 percent - not 62 percent - of people in Brazil say they are Catholic.]

Fifteen-year-old Natalia Andrande says events like this attract new followers; and she says that's her message to Pope Francis.

NATALIA ANDRANDE: (Through translator) This is a way of showing we are strong, that we are also the church. It is a way of changing people's minds.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Evangelical groups - and there are many - have also translated their numbers into a growing political clout. Unlike the Catholic clergy, who are prohibited from being in government, President Dilma Rousseff has an evangelical bishop as a cabinet minister.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This week, despite the pope's imminent visit, Rousseff prayed and reportedly sang with this evangelical group who came to lend her support. And that's the reason, say analysts, that evangelical churches have grown so big, so fast - they reach out to people on many levels. They are visible in politics but they also have, for example, drive-through prayer centers for busy commuters, or rehab centers for the dispossessed.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This small center is called Cristolandia, and it's located right in the center of what's known as Crack-landia, in Sao Paulo. A man gives testimony on the stage about how God saved him from a life on the streets. The congregants here are mostly drug addicts and prostitutes; they come to get a free meal and, if they want, eventually treatment for their addictions at evangelical rehab centers located in the countryside. The pastor here is Humberto Machado.

THE REV. HUMBERTO MACHADO: (Through translator) I was a Catholic, but the Church lost its sense of solidarity with the poor, with the drug addicts, with the prostitutes, the murderers and the thieves. The church closed its doors to these people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that's why Pastor Humberto says Catholicism has been losing favor. This week, Pope Francis will be visiting a shanty town in Rio. He is already being touted as the slum pope, in reference to his focus on social justice and poverty. But it will take a lot to gain back some of the ceded ground. While there is only one church in the community he will be visiting, there are four Pentecostal temples.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Sao Paulo.

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