Sex Battles Religion in Catholic Brazil
Brazil may be the largest Roman Catholic country in the world, but its image is marked by its beaches and Carnival much more than by its approach to religion.
Indeed, the effortless and yet self-aware sexiness of "The Girl from Ipanema" and the voluptuous women who frantically dance samba on Carnival floats are world-famous symbols of the South American giant - in which an estimated 135 million people consider themselves Catholic.
Most Brazilians live happily with the dichotomy of a strong faith and a prominent presence for sexuality. However, tension has been rife between Brazilian authorities - particularly under the current left-wing, socially-progressive government - and Roman Catholic officials over key issues like abortion, contraception and homosexuality, among others.
The country's constitution establishes the separation of church and state, even if about 74 percent of the total population say they are Catholic.
When Pope Benedict XVI visited the country in May 2007, he made scathing comments on abortion even before he landed. But Brazilian Health Minister Jose Gomes Temporao was quick to put him back in what the Brazilian government considers to be his place.
"Debate in the field of philosophy, ethics, religion, in the field of morals is legitimate, but the minister has to focus on the field of public health," said Gomez Temporao.
He stressed that the issue of abortion is "up to each person's faith", while Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva - who defines himself as a Christian - stressed, "no one has an abortion as an option or for pleasure".
Brazilian law currently allows abortion in the first three months of pregnancy, but only when there is a danger to the mother's life or when the pregnancy is the result of rape. Violations to the current law can be punished with up to three years in prison.
But abortion is not the only point that has seen Lula at odds with the Roman Catholic Church.
"We are going to combat hypocrisy in this country. Condoms have to be handed out and we have to teach people how to use them. People have to have sex, and we have to teach people how to do it," Lula once said as he launched an anti-AIDS programme in Rio de Janeiro.
The Brazilian government plans to distribute 600 million free male condoms throughout 2008.
The state is also set to begin paying for sex-change operations, and Lula claimed that a refusal to pay for such surgery would amount to discrimination.
"When you pay your taxes, nobody asks you which is your sexual option. Why discriminate against you when you freely choose what to do with your body?" Lula said.
Brazil's Federal Medicine Council approved sex-change operations in the late 1990s, but until now they could only be conducted in the private healthcare system at a very high cost.
Although homophobia is rife in Brazil, an estimated five million people gathered in May in Sao Paulo for the world's biggest Gay Pride parade, during which total strangers embraced and kissed on the streets.
The practice of kissing - and other forms of intimacy - among strangers is indeed rife during Carnival, a celebration of excess that takes over Rio de Janeiro and elsewhere in Brazil just before Lent.
In 2008, the Roman Catholic Church complained - as it traditionally does - about the free handout of 19.5 million condoms over Carnival, and Minister Gomes Temporao stressed that the prevention of sexually-transmitted diseases "is a public health problem, not a religious problem".
And the north-eastern city of Recife distributed the morning-after pill for free during Carnival.
Despite Carnival's Christian background, it is apparent that millions of Brazilians - even Roman Catholics - are keen to keep religion separate from Carnival, and from sex throughout the year. Lula's government, in turn, is not up to letting the Vatican determine its policies.
As things stand in the largest Roman Catholic country in the world, the Girl from Ipanema and the woman dancing on a float with little more than her genitals covered may well go to church on Sundays.
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