Religions, Cults Get Sacred Space in Brazil Park

Rio de Janiero, Brazil - Aderbal Ashogun, a priest in the Afro-Brazilian religion called candomble, claps his hands three times and says a prayer before putting out a candle left at the foot of a tree in Rio de Janeiro's Tijuca Forest.

The forest is the world's biggest park inside a city, covering an area the size of 4,000 soccer fields and lies amid Rio's upscale districts, posh villas as well as "favela" slums.

Enthusiasts are converting part of it into an area of worship called the Sacred Space which welcomes followers of Afro-Brazilian, druidic, shamanic and many other cults.

But offerings to deities of food, liquor, knickknacks and candles left by devotees often leave the ground more polluted than a rock concert.

"In this area alone we have 30 trees damaged by the fire... and about 100 kg (220 pounds) of garbage removed daily," said Ashogun, a Sacred Space organizer.

Ashogun comes three times a week to participate in the awareness campaign for the Sacred Space. He tells devotees to use biodegradable materials -- such as receptacles made of palm leaves or vegetables rather than plastic or glass and also to reduce the number and size of their offerings.

"The idea that the more you offer (to a deity), the more is accepted is wrong," he told Reuters while walking along the bank of a river, which is also used for offerings.

The project is carried out in partnership between the Tijuca National Park, government's environmental agency Ibama, city hall, environmental and religious groups.

"We have registry of more than 100 religions that are using the forest as sacred ground," said Ana Cristina Vieira, head of the National Park of Tijuca.

"And all of them interfere with the environment in some form because most leave their offerings that become garbage."

Forest animals eat remains of food offerings, which affects their eating habits and can cause illness and death.

"Can you imagine a bird drinking cachaca?" Vieira said, referring to the local fiery liquor made of sugar cane. "Here it happens. The animals eat everything they find."

She said the initial idea was to ban offerings altogether, but later the authorities and enthusiasts jointly decided to earmark certain areas for religious rituals with offerings.

Although Brazil is the world's biggest Catholic country, it is also a caldron for hundreds of religions, cults and esoteric societies that often intertwine in mysterious ways.

In Umberto Eco's best-selling novel "Foucault's Pendulum," Rio is shown as a mystic center where Rosicrucians rub shoulders with priests of Afro-Brazilian trance cults.

Cults such as Candomble and Umbanda worship Afro-Brazilian deities called Orixas, who have spiritual dominion over elements of nature such as fire and water. Devotees offer anything from cigars to soap and mirrors to the deities, as well as fruit and cider or champagne.

The city even has an enormous shopping mall stuffed with cult and magical items and sells birds and animals for sacrifice.

Among the users of the Sacred Space and enthusiasts of eco-friendly worship is an 18-strong group of neo-pagan witchcraft religion called Wicca, who say they always remove their offerings and put out the fire used in rituals.

"Our problem is liberty of religious expression to carry out the rituals on full-moon nights and other sacred dates... We need an open-air place and at the same time privacy to be able to dance and sing," said Wicca priestess Rosane Oliveira.

Wiccans also want the Sacred Space to be protected by a wall and a guardtower for safe night-time rituals.

The Sacred Space in future will have someone always on duty to instruct worshipers. The organizers also plan a dressing room for priests and believers to dress in their ritual robes as well as a shop that will sell religious products.