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Preaching truth to power: the São Paulo priest standing up to Bolsonaro | Jair Bolsonaro

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In 2017, most Brazilians were still unfamiliar with the name Jair Bolsonaro. But for Júlio Lancellotti, there was already cause for concern in the reactionary rhetoric of the man who would be elected president two years later under the slogan: “Brazil above everything, God above everyone.”

“I am astonished that a homophobic person like Bolsonaro appears on the presidential ballot,” said the priest during mass on 7 March of that year at St Michael the Archangel parish in São Paulo’s East Zone. The sermon, in which he also preached against rape culture and sexism, was typical of the man who has devoted his life to fighting injustice, often finding himself targeted by conservative politicians as a result.

An openly leftwing priest who embraces revolutionary ideas – the 72-year-old has demonstrated arm-in-arm with anti-establishment “black bloc” protesters and believes hotels should provide free rooms for homeless people – Lancellotti seemingly represents the antithesis of everything Brazil’s president stands for. He was even sued by Bolsonaro for moral damages because of his March 2017 mass (a judge dismissed the claim).

An elderly man in a facemask, white lab coat and yellow apron pushes a shopping trolley of food
Fr Julio Lancellotti pushes a shopping trolley while distributing food in the Mooca area of Sao Paulo in October. Photograph: Ian Cheibub/The Guardian

But Lancelloti’s run-in with the authorities began long before Bolsonaro took office. As a novice in the late 1960s, he was expelled from the seminary for “bad behaviour”, as he describes it.

He says the seminary where he first studied, in the city of Araraquara, was “very conservative”. His days were marked by censure and abusive punishments. “I was beaten with a bamboo stick, I was forced to kneel on corn grains … one day, a priest said I asked too much in class, that I was very critical. They kicked me out.”

After this episode, Lancellotti spent years away from the priesthood. He graduated from a course in education in 1978, started working with juvenile offenders and soon became a thorn in the side of the authorities.

“I refused to accept the torture I witnessed against young people. I felt I was being tested all the time by those who were aligned with the government,” he says. It was during these years that Lancellotti met progressive priests who were actively engaged with the children’s rights cause, and in doing so rediscovered a sense that social justice was possible within the Roman Catholic church. He resumed his theological studies and, in 1985, became a priest.

Since 1996, Lancelotti has coordinated the pastoral commission of homeless people in São Paulo, which helps about 35,000 people in the district. He describes being pepper-sprayed, spat at, and punched in the stomach by São Paulo’s municipal guard while helping homeless people in 2018.

Lancelotti says the Covid pandemic has worsened the living conditions of São Paulo’s homeless, while the ultra-conservatism of the Bolsonaro era has fuelled what the priest describes as “aporophobia” – a fear and rejection of the poor.

In August, São Paulo state deputy Janaína Paschoal praised the military police after they blocked the homeless commission’s access to an inner-city area nicknamed Cracolândia – “Crackland”.

Advocating for homeless people is the focus of Lancellotti’s activism, but not its only cause. He does not hesitate to take a stand for controversial groups such as those involved in black bloc tactics at demonstrations. “The best guys I have ever met. The purest, the truest. They have been tortured and criminalised unfairly,” says Lancellotti, who helped secure the release of some of the demonstrators from jail in 2013.

Lancellotti, in his white coat, leans over a homeless man lying in a sleeping bag on the pavement
Fr Lancellotti talks to a homeless man sleeping on the street while he distributes food in the Mooca area of São Paulo. Photograph: Ian Cheibub/The Guardian

Consequently, criticism against him comes from all sides. But of all Lancellotti’s critics, Christians are by far the most ferocious, the priest says. “The atheists are usually more human than those who claim to be Christians. Those who say ‘God above all’ are the same who put humans below everything.”

He remains a popular figure for many. His phone rings throughout the day, and he is kept busy with calls – whether it is a media request or speaking to a fellow activist.

An avid social media user, the images he posts while helping homeless people can bring happy results. “Families from all over Brazil have been able to find relatives who were believed to have disappeared,” he says.

He has even inspired a federal bill. Approved by the senate on 31 March last year, the “Júlio Lancellotti bill” aims to ban the practice of putting stones and iron spikes in underpasses – a measure adopted by mayors to prevent homeless people sleeping there. Now back in the lower house and waiting to be revised, the bill is a reminder of the day Lancellotti took a sledgehammer to the stones that had been placed in a São Paulo underpass.

Lancellotti’s present focus is on lobbying city hall to carry out a more responsible census. According to the priest, the last one in 2019 did not accurately record the number of homeless people in São Paulo – which leads to policies that are incapable of solving the issue.

Envisioning a better future for Brazil is still hard for Lancellotti. “Anyone who takes office after this monster [Bolsonaro] won’t be able to restore everything he destroyed in culture, health and education – even in 10 years,” he says, adding: “The Bolsonarismo didn’t appear overnight, and won’t be beaten overnight.”

In a country riven by violence and hatred, he concludes, the only way forward is through “dialogue and love”.

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Protests flare across Poland after death of young mother denied an abortion | Abortion

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Protests are under way across Poland after the death of a 37-year-old woman this week who was refused an abortion, a year since the country introduced one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.

On the streets of Warsaw on Tuesday night, protesters laid wreaths and lanterns in memory of Agnieszka T, who died earlier that day. She was pregnant with twins when one of the foetus’ heartbeat stopped and doctors refused to carry out an abortion. In a statement, her family accused the government of having “blood on its hands”. Further protests are planned in Częstochowa, the city in southern Poland where the mother-of-three was from.

“We continue to protest so that no one else will die,” Marta Lempart, organiser of the protests, told Polish media. “The Polish abortion ban kills. Another person has died because the necessary medical procedure was not carried out on time.” All-Poland Women’s Strike has called on people across the country to picket the offices of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) and organise road blockades in the coming days.

Agnieszka was first admitted to the Blessed Virgin Mary hospital in Częstochowa with abdominal pain on 21 December. She is said to have been in the first trimester of a twin pregnancy when she arrived and was in “a good physical and mental shape”, according to her family, who said her condition then deteriorated.

On 21 December the heartbeat of one of the twins stopped and, according to Agnieszka’s family, the doctors refused to remove it, quoting the current abortion legislation. They waited several days until the second foetus also died. A further two days passed before the pregnancy was terminated on 31 December, according to the family.

A priest was then summoned by hospital staff to perform a funeral for the twins, the family said.

The family say that the doctors refused to terminate the pregnancy earlier, citing Poland’s abortion legislation. “Her husband begged the doctors to save his wife, even at the cost of the pregnancy,” Agnieszka’s twin sister, Wioletta Paciepnik, said on Tuesday.

After the termination, Agnieszka was moved from the gynaecological ward and her health continued to deteriorate. Her family suspect that she died of sepsis but the cause of death was not identified in a statement released by the hospital.

Shortly after her death, a statement by her family accusing the hospital of neglect was published on Facebook, alongside a distressing video of Agnieszka’s last days.

Agnieszka’s death marks the first anniversary of the 2021 ruling that declared abortion due to foetal abnormalities illegal. Abortion can now only be carried out in cases of rape, incest or if the mother’s life and health are in danger.

Her death comes after that of a woman known as Izabela last September, who died after being denied medical intervention when her waters broke in the 22nd week of her pregnancy. Her family claim the 30-year-old was refused an abortion or caesarean section and that the hospital cited the country’s abortion laws. An investigation found that “medical malpractice” led to Izabela’s death and the hospital was fined. Soon after, an anonymous man from Świdnica in south-west Poland came forward to share that his wife, Ania, died in similar circumstances in June last year.

While “selective abortion” is possible in the case of a twin pregnancy, it is unclear whether aborting an unviable foetus to save its healthy twin is permitted by the new abortion legislation. The Polish court has not referenced the questions raised by this situation, presented by opposition senators last year, in the new legislation.

“We want to honour the memory of my beloved sister and save other women in Poland from a similar fate,” Paciepnik said in a video appeal. The case is now being investigated by the regional prosecutors in Katowice, who also investigated the case of Izabela.

The family are represented by Kamila Ferenc, from the Federation for Women and Family Planning, who confirmed that an autopsy of Agnieszka’s body has been ordered by the court.

According to a statement from the hospital, Agnieszka tested positive for Covid before her death, although she tested negative twice when first admitted. “We stress that the hospital staff did all the necessary actions to save the patient,” the statement read. The hospital did not respond to the Guardian for a request for comment.

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Italy welcoming back EU tourists from February

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Italy will remove all Covid-linked restrictions on international visitors from the EU from 1 February, except the requirement to carry a “Green Pass” – a certificate of vaccination, negative test result, or immunity through having had the virus. Roberto Speranza, the health minister, also gave Italians the go-ahead to travel once again to Cuba, Singapore, Turkey, Thailand (the island of Phuket), Oman, and French Polynesia, Reuters reports.

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Polish state has ‘blood on its hands’ after death of woman refused an abortion | Abortion

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The family of a Polish woman who died on Tuesday after doctors refused to perform an abortion when the foetus’s heart stopped beating have accused the government of having “blood on their hands”.

The woman, identified only as Agnieszka T, was said to have been in the first trimester of a twin pregnancy when she was admitted to the Blessed Virgin Mary hospital in Częstochowa on 21 December. Her death comes a year after Poland introduced one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.

According to a statement released by relatives, the 37-year-old was experiencing pain when she arrived at the hospital but was “fully conscious and in good physical shape”.

The first foetus died in the womb on 23 December, but doctors refused to remove it, quoting the current abortion legislation, and Agnieszka’s family claim “her state quickly deteriorated”. The hospital waited until the heartbeat of the second twin also stopped a week later, and then waited a further two days before terminating the pregnancy on 31 December.

Agnieszka died on 25 January after weeks of deteriorating health. Her family suspect that she died as a result of septic shock, but the hospital did not identify the cause of her death in statement issued on Wednesday.

“This is proof of the fact that the current government has blood on their hands,” the woman’s family said in a statement on Facebook. The family also uploaded distressing footage of Agnieszka in poor health shortly before she died.

After the termination of the pregnancy a priest was summoned by the hospital staff to perform a funeral for the twins, Agnieszka’s family said.

Her death follows that of a woman known as Izabela last September, who died after being denied medical intervention when her waters broke in the 22nd week of her pregnancy. Her family claim the 30-year-old was denied an abortion or caesarean section and that the hospital cited the country’s abortion laws. An investigation found “medical malpractice” led to Izabela’s death and the hospital was fined.

Agnieszka’s family claim that contact with the hospital was very poor and that the hospital refused to share the results of Agnieszka’s medical tests citing confidentiality guidelines. They say the doctors “insinuated” that Agnieszka’s rapidly deteriorating state could be caused by BSE, commonly known as “mad cow disease”, or Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (CJD) and suggested she ate raw meat. The hospital did not reference this claim in their statement.

According to the statement from the hospital, Agnieszka tested positive for Covid before her death, although she tested negative twice when first admitted. “We stress that the hospital staff did all the necessary actions to save the patient,” the statement read. It is not clear whether an autopsy has been ordered.

Agnieszka is survived by her husband and three children.

The Guardian has contacted the Blessed Virgin Mary hospital for comment.

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