Pastor Anderson Lisboa appears slightly nervous when I walk through the doors of his church, wedged between an auto repair garage and a cake shop on a busy São Paulo thoroughfare.

“We were worried you would think we were holding a service,” he says through a surgical mask as we sit down at a desk in the narrow, unadorned hall.

Days earlier, Brazil’s supreme court had ruled that local officials could temporarily ban in-person religious services in the face of soaring Covid-19 infections. What might seem a reasonable precaution to curb contagion was, for many conservative Christians in the country, an infringement of both a fundamental right and their identity.

The ruling overturned an earlier decision by a single justice on the tribunal who, at the height of a second wave of the disease, had given the green light for the faithful to gather, with social distancing — just in time for Easter Sunday.

“True Christians are never willing to kill for their faith, but are always willing to die to guarantee freedom of religion and worship,” attorney-general André Mendonça, a Presbyterian pastor, had thundered.

Collective worship has become a battleground in Brazil’s lockdown wars. On the front lines are growing masses of evangelicals, whose numbers are projected to overtake those of Catholics by the 2030s. Often led by charismatic preachers, they provide a bedrock of support for President Jair Bolsonaro, in whom they see a champion of traditional family values.

Little coincidence then that the president’s denial of the gravity of Covid-19 includes opposition to local and state authorities closing commercial and religious premises.

With one hand on a worn leather-bound Bible, Pastor Anderson assures me he is not breaching the rules. Rather, he is ministering to individual congregants, a few of whom sit at the back of the hall, socially distanced, waiting their turn. Along with his concerns that the public health crisis is weakening people’s faith by reducing church attendance, the man of God sees something darker in the supreme court’s edict. “Jesus said in the final days there would be pestilence, earthquakes, war, persecution,” he tells me.

Eschatological readings aside, the episode has thrown into relief cultural faultlines and political polarisation in Brazil. In April, several cities hosted a so-called March of the Christian Family for Freedom. Attendees draped in the national flag waved banners that included denunciations of communism.

One of the organisers, Wellington Macedo, argues that coronavirus restrictions are not based on studies that prove their effectiveness. He describes the supreme court ruling as a “political decision in persecution of Christians in Brazil”.

For some observers the protest carried echoes of the past. In 1964, a mass demonstration in São Paulo with a similar name to the march rallied forces hostile to the leftwing president João Goulart. Soon afterwards, he was deposed by a coup that installed a dictatorship lasting 21 years. Bolsonaro’s most radical supporters call for the shutdown of Congress and the supreme court, as well as intervention by the armed forces.

To those on the other side of the debate, any interference in public policy by church leaders risks eroding the secular nature of the Brazilian state.

Critics point out that with Brazilians giving billions of reais to religious organisations each year, the monetary stakes of closing churches are high for those evangelical chiefs who run their ministries like businesses.

“As in commerce, certain religious leaders want to open their churches because they are spaces for financial gain, where persuasive speeches and collections are carried out,” says Eliane Brígida Falcão, a professor of science education and health at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

On a second visit to Pastor Anderson’s church, after São Paulo’s governor allowed religious services to resume at 25 per cent capacity, less than a dozen worshippers are present in the 60-seat hall. Between servings of gospel and pleas for donations, the preacher delivers a sombre message: “The pandemic is a threat to the church itself.”