Followers of Brazil's Umbanda religion worship despite discrimination

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - Rita Coccaro is the high priestess of the Umbanda Temple of Caboclo Virgin Forest, if "temple" is not too grand a word for the small room in the modest house Coccaro shares with her mother and dog on the outskirts of one of Rio de Janeiro's slums.

Once a week, Coccaro and a dozen followers gather here to sing prayers, beat drums and burn incense in the hope of connecting with the spirits of long-dead African slaves, and of the indigenous people who populated Brazil before the Europeans came.

"Connecting with the spirits is like going to school to develop a deeper knowledge of Umbanda and the world," said Coccaro, who's 41.

Contacting spirits is at the center of Umbanda, a uniquely Brazilian religion that blends African slave traditions and strains of spiritism with the more familiar shapes and symbols of Roman Catholicism.

African slaves were brought to Brazil for more than 300 years to work on sugar and rubber plantations, both during Portuguese colonial rule and after independence in 1822. Forced to convert to Catholicism by their Portuguese masters, the slaves responded by masking their religion, pairing their spirits with Catholic saints.

Today, Umbanda claims more than 400,000 followers throughout the country; Umbanda temples also can be found in the United States and Europe. But despite its deep roots in Brazil, Umbanda's growth hasn't come without friction.

"People think that 'Umbandistas' do voodoo, magic, so you can have success in love and finance. And it is not about this. It's about something beyond. It is about helping," said Augusto Prates, an Umbanda medium who says he's had rocks thrown at his temple and has been denounced as worshiping the devil.

Four years ago, an Italian tourist was robbed at Rio's famed Copacabana Beach. Days later, the leader of one of Brazil's growing evangelical Christian sects told the police that the man who'd committed the crime was an Umbanda follower who'd been possessed by a devil-like spirit that made him rob the tourist.

The unsubstantiated claim offended practitioners of Umbanda and Candomble, another Afro-Brazilian religion, bringing to light the discrimination that many face.

"They have been discriminated against since they came here because of their practices and the belief that they were cults," said Henrique Pessoa, a police official who heads Rio's new office investigating crimes of religious intolerance, which was established after the Copacabana robbery.

Pessoa said Umbanda and Candomble followers - victims of 97 percent of religious-intolerance crimes, he estimates - had faced discrimination since slavery times. The African slaves were forced to become Catholics and hide their religions because the Portuguese thought they were cults. Today, he said, society still requires Umbanda and Candomble followers to hide their religions, because they're not "mainstream." A law barring religious intolerance has been on the books since the middle of the last century, but it hasn't been strictly enforced until recently, Pessoa said.

Discrimination isn't always from outsiders. Prates said he'd faced discrimination from his own family. He said his family members who didn't practice Umbanda told him "it's not right."

Edmilson Fereira, who attends services at Templo de Oxossi, one of the largest Umbanda temples in Rio, doesn't tell his family that he practices Umbanda.

"I hide the fact that I go to an Umbanda temple because it's criticized, not just by my family but by my family, friends and co-workers," said Fereira, who was raised Catholic.

He said they thought his religion was "macumba," a term originally used to describe all Afro-Brazilian religions but one that's recently taken on a negative connotation, meaning black magic.

Since the inception of the police department for crimes of religious intolerance, crimes against Umbanda and Candomble followers have decreased, Pessoa said. There are now about 120 such crimes each year in Rio. Other states in Brazil now look to Rio as an example and may establish similar departments, he said.

Despite the discrimination he faces, Prates trusts in his religion, he said, "because I know that my religion, Umbanda, makes peace and makes things good."

"Umbanda is charity and love, only this," Prates said, reciting an Umbanda saying.