Instead of a manger in Bethlehem, Jesus will arrive this Christmas in a badly burned clearing in the Amazon rainforest, a black baby born to a black virgin with indigenous cherubs looking on.

The symbolically charged nativity scene is already turning heads in Rio de Janeiro’s Gloria square, where the nearby Church of the Sacred Heart has a history of using its annual Christmas display to address contemporary issues.

There was a lot to choose from in 2020, but the church picked two topics that have become particularly pertinent in Brazil since far-right President Jair Bolsonaro took office last year: racism and rampant deforestation in the Amazon.

“This nativity scene is meant to show that people who torch mother nature, people who attack their brothers and sisters because their skin is a different color, don’t have God in their hearts,” said church spokesman Mauricio Rodrigues dos Santos, 63.

The church has been making mangers with a message for the past decade, taking advantage of its prime location near Gloria square, a busy metro stop in front of the Rio archdiocese headquarters.

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Two years ago, the church depicted a bare-breasted Mary nursing her baby, after a series of incidents in which authorities stopped mothers from breast-feeding in public.

The year before, vandals trashed the church’s nativity scene, which depicted the fight against corruption.

Last year, priest Wanderson Guedes, who is also the artist behind the installations, decided against doing a nativity scene on Amazon deforestation after receiving threats.

However, the church — which constructs the scenes itself using volunteer labor and members’ donations — decided to press ahead this year, and add an anti-racism message, as well.

They are salient subjects in Bolsonaro’s Brazil.

The far-right leader has presided over a surge of destruction and fires in the world’s biggest rainforest.

He has also been charged with hate speech for making derogatory comments about black Brazilians.

Despite the tense political climate, Dos Santos said the church community was not fearful for this year’s nativity scene.

“If (vandals) break something, so be it. We have a whole year to rebuild,” he told AFP.

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“They can’t break the idea. They can’t break the spirit. That will remain.”

© Agence France-Presse