Speaking to supporters during a campaign event last year, then-presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro proclaimed: “God is above all. There is no such thing as a secular state. The state is Christian and if minorities don’t like that they can leave. Minorities must bow to the majority.”
Though identifying as Catholic, President Bolsonaro was baptized as an Evangelical Christian in 2016, in the waters of the Jordan River in Israel. Three years earlier, Mr. Bolsonaro married his wife Michele, in a ceremony conducted by prominent Evangelical pastor Silas Malafaia. Brazil’s head of state is therefore inextricably linked to the country’s Evangelical community, which accounts for 22 percent of the Brazilian population. (This percentage has risen sharply; in 1970, 5 percent of the population identified as Evangelical.)
A great deal of the more extreme facets of Jair Bolsonaro’s agenda—especially when it comes to moral and social values—can be credited to the influence the Evangelical church has on his politics. Damara Alves, an Evangelical pastor assigned to occupy the former ministry of human rights (rechristened the “Ministry of Women, Family, and Human Rights”), sparked controversy last week by declaring Brazil was entering into a “new era,” where “boys wear blue and girls wear pink.” Furthermore, one of Mr. Bolsonaro’s most prominent policies is a promise to transfer Brazil’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem—a demand that came directly from the Evangelical intelligentsia within the new government. It is safe to say that Mr. Bolsonaro represents the rise of these worldviews to power and that Brazil’s secular state is in peril.
But it’s not just the separation between church and state which is in danger. For quite some time, practitioners of Afro-Brazilian religions have been experiencing what it could mean to live in an Evangelical-dominated country. “The election of [Jair] Bolsonaro represents a setback for all the people of [Afro-Brazilian religion] Candomblé,” said Jandira Mawsi, administrator of the Terreiro do Bogum, a religious community in Salvador, Bahia.
Religious intolerance on the rise
According to numbers published by the former Ministry of Human Rights, religious intolerance—especially toward Afro-Brazilian faiths—rose steadily since 2011. In 2016, there were 759 cases. Then, the numbers started to drop: 537 cases in 2017 and 210 as of June last year. Specialists say that these results are down to a lack of reporting, and the National Committee for Respect for Religious Diversity claims intolerance has not stopped growing. News reports seem to go along with this hypothesis.
In May 2018, drug dealers destroyed a Candomblé temple and forced its priestess to leave a neighborhood in northern Rio de Janeiro. A year before, in Duque de Caxias, a Candomblé temple was destroyed after it was set on fire. It was the eight time the particular place of worship had been attacked. Three vehicles that belonged to the priestess had already been torched and shots were fired against the building. The State Department of Human Rights of Rio de Janeiro said that cases of religious intolerance increased by 56 percent from 2017 to 2018. The majority of the attacks (71.5 percent) were directed at groups of African origin.
The persecution of African-Brazilian religions is nothing new. In the 19th century, authorities would apprehend religious objects and images, and during the 1930s, the Getúlio Vargas government raided and closed temples, as well as banning African percussion instruments. Specialists also point out that racism plays a major part in the prejudice against anything remotely connected to Afro-Brazilian culture. The persecution coming from the Evangelical community is but a new face of this historic intolerance.
Evangelicals ‘need’ an enemy
According to Vagner Gonçalves da Silva, an anthropologist specialized in Afro-Brazilian religions, there are two main reasons why Evangelicals turn their anger toward Candomblé and its offshoot, Umbanda.
First, Mr. Gonçalves da Silva believes their worldview is binary, built around the idea of good and evil. They need an enemy on which they can place the blame for their misfortunes. And the entities and spirits that are part of the African-based faiths play the role of the antagonist, or the Devil. Also, as Afro-Brazilian faiths are only followed by 3 percent of the Brazilian population and the Catholic church is still very strong, they choose to go after the “easier target”.
There are those who fear that with Evangelicals’ new-found access to political power, persecution will become a state policy. Jandira Mawsi says that in some states, police invade rituals and forbid ceremonies. One year ago, officers were accused of invading a Candomblé ceremony to threaten practitioners and shoot firearms. She fears the new president will try to pass legislation that criminalizes her faith.
Today, January 7, is Religious Freedom Day in Brazil. The date celebrates the first law to determine that all religions can be professed in Brazil, dating back to 1890. The 1988 Constitution guarantees freedom of religion to all Brazilians and forbids any depriving of rights based on faith-related issues.