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Intolerance in Brazil: The Hard Life of Those Who Believe in African Gods

CandombléIn the beginning of May, the Report on the Human Right to Education investigative team in Rio de Janeiro decided to examine one of the most veiled and complex problems of people of African descent in Brazil:  religious intolerance of Candomblé, Umbanda and other religions of African origin. 

This study is part of a bigger research project entitled “Education and Racism in Brazil,” which began at the beginning of this year  and is being conducted in various Brazilian states.  With the support of the Commission for the Combat of Religious Intolerance (CCIR) of Rio de Janeiro, the team also plans to investigate what is being done in regard to education about quilombos (communities of descendents of runaway slaves). 

According to the researchers, one of the biggest problems regarding intolerance of Afro-Brazilian religions is that not many seem to even care that it is a problem.  However, the problem is worse where there is strong prejudices against these religions, especially where there are neo-Pentecostal churches (like Igreja Universal, Internacional da Graça, among others) which preach against them. 

In such regions, the Afro-Brazilian religions are practically prohibited.  The increase of members of these neo-Pentecostal churches and their power over the media and government, together with ambiguous educational policies, are the principal causes of religious intolerance of these religions. 

Márcio Gualberto of the Collective Black Entities of Rio de Janeiro commented on this prejudice that members of Afro-Brazilian religions are closet devil-worshippers:  “Religions from African origins have no way of hiding the devil, principally because this figure does not even exist in these religions.”

In January, the Institute of Comparative Studies in Institutional Administration of Conflicts (InEAC-UFF) released a report entitled “Religious Intolerance in Rio de Janeiro.”  The document analyzes conflicts related to differences in identity and ethnic-religious backgrounds in the state vis-à-vis how these differences are handled by public institutions. 

“Religious intolerance is completely ignored by the State and even by social movements.  There is a false idea of racial democracy,” stated Fábio Reis Mota, social scientist of the InEAC-UFF.

Between 2008-2009, CCIR accompanied 17 specific cases of religious intolerance registered in police records.  One fact that was evident to the Commission was the difficulty that police have in seeing the importance of registering such cases.  Many times, the police convince the victims to not register the case, as though is was merely a small problem. 

“The police say this type of problem is “not worth a can of beans,” something not important,” said Reis Mota.  Data reveal that the majority of the victims are older than 21, while those that commit the crime are usually around 40, which reveals intolerance among mid-lifers.  The majority of the cases occur in religious institutes or in the home of the victim.

Another criticism made by researchers involves the way the media treats the issue.  Afro-Brazilian religiosity is treated in a stereotypical fashion, reinforcing prejudices already existent in society. 

However, Joel Zito Araújo, director of the documentary, “Negação do Brasil,” does not agree 100% with the researchers:  “Television media does not have a homogenous treatment for African religions.  Some accept religious diversity, and we can see a positive portrayal of characters. 

“However, this segment that tends to treat religions positively also treats religions of African origin as the exception and not the rule.  In certain cases, we can watch preachers giving sermons or television hosts making non-subtle remarks stereotyping members of African religions, emphatically portraying them as devil-worshippers, feeding prejudices, hate and ignorance.”

José Flávio Pessoa, professor of the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ), stated that there has always been persecution.  The only thing that has changed is the way it is done.  Priests of “calundus,” a religion practiced until the 19th century, were persecuted and assassinated. 

“Until the 1950’s, the Catholic Church encouraged persecution.  During this time, the police would enter the temples, destroy them, and take the goods.  Beginning in the 1970’s, the neo-Pentecostal churches began to form and promote a true “holy war” against African religiosity.  And today they have various ways of pressuring the State, such as prohibiting the sacrifice of animals and noisy religious services,” said Pessoa.

The Commission for the Combat of Religious Intolerance was formed in March of 2008, after an incident at Ilha do Governador in which members of neo-Pentecostal religions destroyed temples of Umbanda and Candomblé religions. 

Members of these African religions then united and protested in front of the Legislative Assembly in Rio.  They then formed the CCIR, which has as its principal objective the combat of religious prejudice. 

The two main works of the Commission are the “March for the Defense of Religious Freedom,” and the “Forum for Inter-religious Dialogue.”  One of the main demands of the group is for the creation of a special police section to deal with crimes of ethnic-racial-religious discrimination.

Gualberto reported that in Rio de Janeiro, in 2009, a woman wearing African religious garb was spat upon by a group of neo-Pentecostal church members.  In the same year, a Umbanda house was attacked by religious fanatics. 

To counteract such violence, Gualberto’s group is planning for 2011 the National Conference for Religious Freedom, to be held by the federal government. 

“There are more cases of religious intolerance than we imagine.  The perpetrators are from various segments of society, and the cases are not only acts of omission–sometimes the State itself is an active perpetrator,” said Gualberto.

Leandro Uchoas writes for Brasil de Fato.

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