A small city in the south of Brazil plans to unveil one of the world’s biggest Christ statues, a 121-foot-tall giant of concrete placed on a 20-foot-high platform.

It could be seen as an odd project in a country that recent surveys show now has a population that is less than 50 percent Catholic, but the fact that the sculptor comes from an Adventist family shows that the religious dynamics in Brazil cannot be easily deciphered.

The idea first came up years ago, when the family of a sick man promised to God that it would build a Christ sculpture if he had a few more months of life.

A few years later, a prominent priest in the region, Father João Granzotto, visited the city of Encantado, and galvanized the community to pursue the plan.

“When Adroaldo Conzatti was running for mayor of Encantado, he met with Father Granzotto and discussed the project. In 2017 Conzatti took office, and the building of the statue was already part of his plan,” Rafael Fontana, one of the members of the association created to coordinate the project, told Crux.

The property which included the region’s highest hill was donated by three local families to the city government. In 2019, the association began to collect funds.

“No public money is being used,” Fontana added.

The Cristo Protetor statue under construction in Encantado, Brazil. (Associação Amigos de Cristo via Crux)

In March of 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic, the association ceased to ask for donations for the statue and began to collect funds for the city hospital.

“After a few months, we decided to get a loan from the bank in order to resume construction. Nine members of the association signed as the borrowers of R$1.5 million [about $282,000]. The sculptor came in September,” Fontana said. The total cost is estimated in R$2 million ($380,000).”

Markus Moura explained that Cristo Protetor (Christ the Protector) is entirely sculpted in reinforced concrete. Its head and arms were placed over the structural pillars on April 6. He’s now working on Jesus’s cloak, which represents a great part of the statue.

“This is being my most memorable project. The reactions of the people have been amazing,” he told Crux.

Moura learned how to sculpt large figures with his father Genesio, who has built giant statues all over the country, including of Christ, Our Lady, and even of the soccer legend Pelé.

“My father is sort of an atheist. My mother and aunties are Adventist. That’s my origin. But today I believe that those statues are representations of goodness, not the objects of idolatry,” he said.

The Cristo Protetor statue under construction in Encantado, Brazil. (Associação Amigos de Cristo via Crux)

Amid great political polarization and social tension in Brazil, attacks on Catholic churches and the desecration of holy images – usually blamed on members of the Evangelical and Pentecostal communities – have become more and more common in the country.

“Only bigoted people are able to do such things. I’m sure our Christ is pleasing everybody, not just Catholics,” Moura said.

According to Fontana, all members of the board of the association are Catholic, “but the statue was not conceived to please only Catholics.”

“Our idea is to unite all people, not to bring division. Our Christ is a signal of welcome,” he said.

The project seems to be working. In the weekend after the head and the arms were positioned over the pillars, Encantado already received a couple of thousands of visitors.

The association estimates that the city will welcome at least 5,000 visitors every week when construction is completed. Local shop owners are investing in improvements and businessmen are planning to build hotels in the region.

The statue will have an internal elevator that will take visitors to an observatory, positioned at the level of Jesus’ heart. Christ the Protector will be 16-feet taller than Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer.

A number of giant statutes of saints are under construction in Brazil. Genésio Moura is currently working on a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes. Markus Moura said that he’s analyzing a few future projects.

Francisco Borba Ribeiro Neto, the director of the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo’s Center of Faith and Culture, considers that monumental statues of Christ may play a role in the current “political-religious conflict in Bolsonaro’s Brazil.”

“There’s a symbolic struggle going on, a fight for the right to a certain cultural identity and for resuming hegemony over such identity, which is Conservative Christianism, both the Evangelical and the Catholic currents,” he told Crux.

“Monumental statues of Jesus reinforce the symbolic element of Christ’s – and of his Traditionalist followers’ – sovereignty over reality,” Ribeiro Neto said.

Andrew Chesnut, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and an expert in the religious dynamics in Brazil, said the building of Cristo Protetor and other statues is an answer to the “Pentecostal competition” in the country.

“Since 2018 Brazil ceased to be a country with a majority of Catholics. Most of the people who abandoned the Church joined Pentecostal churches,” he told Crux.

He compares the phenomenon with Counter-Reformation, when the Church, in an attempt to strengthen the cult of saints in opposition to the Lutheran iconoclasm, waged a campaign of construction of massive monuments in Germanic territories.

“It’s a visible response to the abrupt decline in the number of Catholics over the past five decades,” he said.