Followers of Afro-Brazilian religions feel under attack

RECIFE, Brazil — Drizzle fell steadily as a crowd of a few hundred practitioners of Candomblé — a syncretic Afro-Brazilian religion often compared to Santería or Haitian Voodoo — gathered under enormous white tents in front of the Basílica de Nossa Senhora do Carmo in one of Brazil’s oldest cities in late June.

“Prejudice is the deformed child of ignorance,” Pedro Henrique, a member of the Order of Lawyers, declared to the crowd, his measured words booming through the speakers. He was among roughly a dozen speakers present to defend Afro-Brazilian religious practices.

While Candomblé (pejoratively referred to in Portuguese as Macumba) and its indigenous parallel, Umbanda, have long been persecuted by Catholic and lay authorities, practitioners say the phenomenal growth of the evangelical movement in Brazil seems to have increased prejudice against them.

The number of evangelical Christians in Brazil grew 61 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics. While Brazil still has the largest population of Catholics in the world — 123 million — Catholics saw their percentage decrease from 74 percent to 65 percent of the population in the same period. The evangelical population now accounts for roughly a quarter of the population, including presidential hopeful Marina Silva.

In the wake of Brazil’s changing religious demographics, intimidation of and violence toward Candomblé and Umbanda worshippers have increased.

One of the central figures in the conflict between evangelicals and Afro-Brazilian worshippers is Edir Macedo, the controversial founder of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, the largest neo-Pentecostal congregation in Brazil. This church has 8 million followers in more than 200 countries across the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia. Forbes called Macedo “one of the world’s richest religious leaders and a prominent media baron.” He heads the Rede Record television network and a communication group that includes newspapers, radios and TV stations.

Macedo has sent preachers to the poor outskirts of Brazil's major cities to gain followers and combat Afro-Brazilian religions, which he describes as “diabolical.”

In Bahia, Macedo’s church was ordered to pay roughly 1.3 million reals ($555,000) to Mother Gilda, a local Afro-Brazilian religious leader, for moral damages. In 1999 the church’s paper published a photo of her on its front page with the caption “Charlatan Macumbeiros damage the wallets and the lives of their clients.”

While evangelical politicians have been steering Brazil's policies away from legalizing abortion or increasing protections for LGBT people, positions such as Macedo’s are also affecting the lives of Candomblé worshippers by fomenting intolerance.

In 2011 the state of Rio de Janeiro created a special agency to deal with the growing number of hate crimes. According to the secretary of human rights, the number of calls made to a federal religious intolerance hotline jumped from 109 in 2012 to 231 in 2013. It began recording such incidents in 2011.

While it’s unclear how many of those victims were practioners of Afro-Brazilian religions, Marta Almeida Filha, an activist for Afro-Brazilian rights, said attacks against Candomblé are often perpetrated by “fundamentalist evangelicals.”

Earlier this year a terreiro — a meeting space dedicated to a particular orixá (or saint) — was burned near the city of Goiana. In May a judge in Rio de Janeiro ruled that Candomblé and Umbanda were not religions. He was forced to retract that decision when it caused an uproar, but the sentence revealed that hostility to Afro-Brazilian religions permeates all levels of society.

Candomblé was developed by African slaves in Brazil during the earliest days of the slave trade to resist Catholic Portuguese colonists’ proselytization. To avoid persecution, slaves adopted Catholic saints as stand-ins for their own gods and goddesses. For example the basilica’s eponymous Nossa Senhora do Carmo, Our Lady of Carmel, represents the Candomblé goddess Oxum, goddess of love, wealth and fertility.

Drums call the gods, according to worshippers, and music and dance allow the faithful to enter into meditative trances. Sometimes a particular god or goddess (worshippers focus their faith on one member of the pantheon) will enter a person’s body. This possession is why many Christians, particularly evangelicals, reject the religion as devil worship.

“The spirit of God alerts his church to tricky spirits and to the devil’s doctrine,” said Maria Josete da Silva, a telemarketing operator and neo-Pentecostal evangelical Christian who lives in Recife. “I can’t allow the devil to take possession of me or of anyone near me.”

“The pastor says that we can’t allow our flock to sicken, to give itself to the powers of evil, so we have to fight it,” she added.

Da Silva attends Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in Santo Amaro, one of Recife’s central neighborhoods. Recife’s income and wealth disparity stand out in Brazil, and da Silva’s congregation reflects the realities of the city. Most of her fellow church members are poor and have little formal education. They are also predominantly Afro-Brazilian, representative of Recife’s black majority. It is the same demographic that makes up the bulk of Candomblé worshippers

“In general, we can say that Pentecostals and Afro-Brazilians are members of poor people’s religions,” said Joanildo Burity, a researcher at the Joaquim Nabuco Foundation in Recife whose work focuses on evangelical Christians. “There’s a dispute in this context between Pentecostals and Afro-Brazilians because they're competing for the same faithful.”

While they compete for the same audience, evangelicals and Candomblé worshippers hold fundamental doctrinal differences, Buitry said. “There is a radical monotheism versus a polytheist or animist posture,” he explained. “From the point of view of the beliefs, this is one of the biggest reasons for the conflict between evangelicals and Afro-Brazilians.”

“We are trying to raise awareness among people that our religion is not demonic,” said “Father” Cleyton, who leads a terreiro for the orixá Xangó, the god of justice and fire. “Our religion is a religion that defends nature, that worships nature.”

He said that with help from the state government, Candomblé followers have cataloged 1,300 terreiros in the state of Pernambuco alone.

But the real number, he said, is much larger.

“There are many, many terreiros that still meet in the backs of houses, and because people sometimes are ashamed to say that their religion has African origins, that they belong to Candomblé, that they belong to a terreiro,” Cleyton said. “And that’s a result of prejudice.”