RIO DE JANEIRO — Latin America's growing rivalry between the Roman Catholic Church and scores of Protestant churches has broken out into what's being called a ''holy war'' here in Brazil.
The spark was a sacrilegious act by a Pentecostal pastor that was shown last month on national television. Thousands of outraged Catholic protesters took to the streets, bomb threats were made against Pentecostal churches, and both Pope John Paul II and Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso called for tolerance.
But behind the incident lies a fundamental change taking place in Brazilian society: The rapid growth and spreading influence of Evangelical churches are threatening Brazil's status as the world's largest Roman Catholic country.
What ignited the recent uproar was the Rev. Sergio von Helde's mistreatment of a ceramic image of Brazil's patron saint, Our Lady of Aparecida. On the Sao Paulo-based television program ''The Awakening of Faith,'' the pastor of the Universal Church of The Kingdom of God repeatedly kicked and slapped the likeness, calling it a ''horrible, disgraceful doll,'' and telling viewers ''the Catholic Church lies. This image can't do anything for you.''
The attack on Our Lady of Aparecida - a black version of the Virgin Mary - was the sharpest display to date of the increasing competition between the Catholic Church and Protestant churches.
About 110 million of Brazil's 153 million inhabitants are Catholic, and Our Lady of Aparecida is to Brazil what Our Lady of Lourdes is to France or Our Lady of Fatima to Portugal.
In the weeks that followed Pastor Von Helde's attack, thousands of outraged protesters demonstrated by carrying images of the aggrieved 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 Catholics ''not to answer evil with evil.'' In Rio, the Most Rev. Eugenio Sales, the Archbishop, told reporters ''unless we control our emotions, there is the risk of a holy war.''
As in other Latin American nations, the Brazilian evangelical movement has expanded rapidly, as millions of the poor flock to its churches seeking spiritual help for lives trapped in poverty or caught up in drugs and crime.
''Jesus Christ has transformed me. I was a drug addict, and now I don't even drink any more,'' says Pedro Noguera, an employee of Visao Nacional de Evangelizcao, one of Brazil's largest nongovernmental organizations. Mr. Noguera converted to the Pentecostal Church five years ago.
In 1960, Latin America had only 7 million Protestants. By 1990, the number had reached 51 million, according to the Worldwide Evangelization Crusade.
In Peru, Bolivia, and Mexico, Protestant churches are growing between 7 and 9 percent a year. But in Brazil, Chile, and Guatemala - where they have made the most headway - between 20 and 50 percent of all Catholics have converted to Protestant denominations over the past 20 years, according to the Roman Catholic Conference of Latin Bishops.
At the center of this trend is Brazil. The 1980 census showed that 89 percent of residents here described themselves as Catholic. But religious experts say that number has since dwindled to 70 percent of the population, while 20 percent, or about 30 million people, now call themselves evangelicals. The Catholic Church estimates that 600,000 of their faithful convert annually.
Recent press reports indicate that the evangelicals have surpassed the Catholics in numbers of pastors to priests (200,000 to 15,000) and in numbers of churches (100,000 to 45,000).
Evangelicals have also been electing their own politicians. Currently, there are 27 federal deputies, 4 senators, 55 state deputies, some 125 mayors, and 4,000 city councilmen who ran as evangelical candidates.
By far the fastest growing sects in Latin America are the small, home-grown Pentecostal churches with little or no connections to foreign denominations, which disdain traditional Protestant branches and interpret the Bible literally. An estimated 70 to 80 percent of Latin Protestants belong to a Pentecostal church, according to the Latin America Evangelist, a Protestant publication.
Pentecostals have attracted millions with easy-to-read versions of the Scriptures, catchy music, miraculous cures, and promises of a chance to become church organizers.
In Brazil, the fastest growing church is Von Helde's Pentecostal Universal Church of The Kingdom of God. 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 newsmagazine.
The Universal Church was founded 18 years ago in a converted Rio mortuary by Edir Macedo, a former state lottery administrator and self-declared bishop. Mr. Macedo is known for his fiery sermons about the ''war between God and the devil.'' He preaches that faith can cure nearsightedness, cancer, and AIDS.
In Rio, a study by the Institute for Religious Studies notes that 9 out of 10 new city churches belong to Pentecostal denominations, which use an assortment of names such as the Quadrangular Gospel, God Is Love, Home of the Blessing, Signs and Prodigies, and Jesus Is Truth.
Boris Fausto, a historian at the University of Sao Paulo, suggests the poor are drawn to such sects out of their need to escape their harsh reality: ''This type of emotional appeal is irresistible for people who have nothing to lose.''
Religious experts see other reasons for the Catholic Church's inability to stem the Pentecostal advance. For years, the church hierarchy has been feuding between conservatives, who favor established traditions, and progressives, who follow liberation theology's Marxist analysis of social and economic problems.
Even warnings by Pope John Paul II of evangelical ''false images,'' hasn't had much effect.
Brazilian Catholics are also disenchanted with the lack of priests to go around and with what many describe as the church's resistance to changing old-fashioned rituals to counteract evangelical sermons and slick marketing techniques used on television, radio, and in rock videos.
While some critics have dismissed Von Helde's recent television performance as theatrics, his symbolic assault on the saint on Oct. 12 is the evangelical movement's boldest challenge to the establishment religion. Each year, the date is celebrated as Our Lady of Aparecida's feast day and a national holiday, which is a source of resentment for the nation's evangelicals.
The Brazilian government lost no time in taking sides. Sao Paulo prosecutors charged Von Helde - an ex-Catholic - with several violations, including ''public discrimination and contempt against another religion,'' and using the media to ''incite religious discrimination,'' which could earn him up to six years 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 Von Helde with racism, since Our Lady of Aparecida is Brazil's only black saint.
President 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.''
Yet Von Helde and other Universal pastors have long been giving stirring sermons against the Catholics. They not only criticize their use of images but also question Mary's virginity and refer to the pope as ''a false prophet'' and the Vatican as ''Babylonia.''
But never before had any pastor 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 showed that the Universal [Church] now considers itself sufficiently strong enough to do what no other religion has ever done in Brazil - confront the Catholic Church,'' says Veja.
Universal pastors preach that miracles depend not only on faith but the size of one's financial contribution to the church. ''If you don't pay God, you pay the devil,'' Macedo has often said.
Thanks to massive contributions, the Universal 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 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 Macedo the ''CEO'' of Brazil's 34th-richest private company, ahead of such giants as Philip Morris and Goodyear. To administer his financial empire, the bishop is said to divide his time between homes in New York, Argentina, and South Africa.
As a result, Macedo has been the target of several criminal investigations for racketeering, charlatanism, and tax evasion. Marcio Thomaz Bastos, Macedo's lawyer, insists his client has broken no laws and is a victim of ''an inquisition.''
Meanwhile, Macedo has apologized to Brazilian Catholics for Von Helde's actions. From his New York home, he said by telephone on TV Record that the pastor ''acted like a child'' and that he would suspend him from his Sao Paulo post.
Rubem Cesar Fernandes, a Rio-based anthropologist who has studied Brazil's evangelical movement, believes the apology won't mollify most Catholics. In fact, he predicts the incident over Our Lady of Aparecida will have ''a sobering effect in attracting new followers [to the evangelical churches]. People will now look at them in a different way.''
Even some fellow evangelicals have joined 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 statement announcing their break with the Universal Church. ''Its practices impede others from becoming evangelists.''
Most certainly, the Catholic Church is not about to let the matter rest. Recently, several bishops have announced measures to curb evangelical expansion.
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 60 to 70 percent of its 110 million members; and change the emphasis of its liberation theology-inspired ecclesiastical base communities - neighborhood religious groups - by stressing self-fulfillment, youth, antidrug efforts, and women in society.