The Candelaria Church and the empty Presidente Vargas Avenue are seen in downtown Rio de Janeiro on March 25, 2020. (Photo: AFP)
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro decreed Thursday that places of worship are "essential services" that must be exempted from coronavirus confinement orders, the far-right leader's latest jab at aggressive containment measures.
The decree, published in the government diary, adds "religious activities of any kind" to the list of exempted services, alongside supermarkets and pharmacies.
It adds that such activities must be carried out "in accordance with health ministry guidelines."
Bolsonaro, who was elected in 2018 with the backing of Brazil's burgeoning evangelical Christian community, has clashed with local authorities who have closed schools and businesses in places such as Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in a bid to contain the spread of the new coronavirus.
The president, who has called the reaction to the pandemic "overblown," says such measures are unnecessary and will wreck Latin America's biggest economy.
Most places of worship in Brazil have already suspended services because of the outbreak, often broadcasting them online instead.
However, some prominent religious leaders have refused.
Asked if the coronavirus in Brazil could reach the same level of infection as in the United States, Bolsonaro said he didn't "believe it will reach that point."
Brazilians, he said, "don't catch anything. You see a guy jumping over sewer water there, he goes out, he falls in... and nothing happens to him."
"Moreover I believe that many people are already infected (with the coronavirus) in Brazil, weeks or months ago -- they already have antibodies that help it to not proliferate," Bolsonaro said, speaking to reporters outside the presidential residence in Brasilia.
Last week, the influential evangelical pastor Silas Malafaia, a Bolsonaro ally, called confinement measures "a tactic by Satan."
"My friends, do not worry about coronavirus. It is just another tactic by Satan. Satan works with fear," he said.
Malafaia changed course Friday and suspended his churches' services. But he insisted that was because of official restrictions on public transportation, and said the doors would remain open for worshippers.