Evangelical gangs in Rio de Janeiro wage ‘holy war’ on Afro-Brazilian faiths

. Dec 17, 2019
Evangelical gangs in Rio de Janeiro wage ‘holy war’ on Afro-Brazilian faiths Popular festival to celebrate Iemanjá Day (Red River, Salvador, Bahia, Brazil). Photo: Erica Catarina Pontes

The expression “Evangelical drug trafficker” may sound incongruous, but in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, it’s widespread. “Charismatic Christianity” is on the rise across Brazil. Slightly less than a third of all Brazilians identify as Evangelical, up from 5 percent in the 1960s. The 2020 national census is expected to show significantly more growth.

In Rio, where the Evangelical population increased 30 percent in the first decade of this century, even some of the most notorious drug dealers claim to be spreading the gospel.

</p> <h2>Brazil’s evangelical turn</h2> <p>I study <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/authors/robert-muggah">violence in Latin America</a>, and I’ve observed a sharp increase in reports of religiously motivated crimes in Rio de Janeiro since 2016, in particular <a href="http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/9/13/prejudice-againstcandombleworshippersincreasesinbrazil.html">attacks on “<em>terreiros</em>”</a>—which are temples of the Afro-Brazilian faiths Candomblé and Umbanda.</p> <p>According to Brazil’s Commission to Combat Religious Intolerance, <a href="https://g1.globo.com/rj/rio-de-janeiro/noticia/2019/05/27/traficantes-dao-ordem-para-fechar-terreiros-na-baixada-fluminense.ghtml">over 100 Afro-Brazilian religious facilities</a> nationwide were attacked by drug trafficking groups in 2019, an increase on previous years. A national emergency hotline created to report such attacks finds that <a href="http://www.generonumero.media/terreiros-na-mira/">60 percent of incidents reported between 2011 and 2017</a> occurred in Rio de Janeiro.</p> <p>Persecution of these <a href="https://rlp.hds.harvard.edu/faq/african-derived-religions-brazil">Afro-Brazilian religions</a>, whose adherents are largely poor black Brazilians, <a href="http://www.publicadireito.com.br/artigos/?cod=13d83d3841ae1b92">has been around since at least the 19th century</a>.</p> <p>But the current wave of religious bigotry is more personal, and more violent, than in the past. As the <em>Washington Post</em> recently <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/soldiers-of-jesus-armed-neo-pentecostals-torment-brazils-religious-minorities/2019/12/08/fd74de6e-fff0-11e9-8501-2a7123a38c58_story.html?utm_campaign=acts_of_faith&amp;utm_medium=Email&amp;utm_source=Newsletter&amp;wpisrc=nl_faith&amp;wpmm=1">reported</a>, Afro-Brazilian priests are being harassed and murdered for their faith. Candomblé and Umbanda practitioners fear leaving their homes. Terreiros have closed due to death threats.</p> <p>Rio’s Commission to Combat Religious Intolerance, a group created in 2008 by religious minorities, reported about 200 such incidents in the city between January and September this year—up from 92 in the entirety of 2018.</p> <script src="https://www.buzzsprout.com/299876/1302016-65-faith-is-a-profitable-business-in-brazil.js?player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <h2><strong>Evangelicalism on the rise</strong></h2> <p>The increase in religious hate crimes coincides with the growing political and cultural clout of Evangelicals in Brazil. Evangelical lawmakers currently hold 195 of 513 seats in Brazil’s lower house of Congress, giving them the power to shape the national debate on abortion, religion in schools, gay marriage, and other social issues.</p> <p>Many Brazilian Protestants attend mainstream services, and are horrified by rising discrimination against those who practice other faiths.</p> <p>But the <a href="https://www.alternet.org/belief/dramatic-religious-shift-brazil-evangelicals-are-rapidly-overtaking-catholics">fastest-growing denominations in Brazil</a> are the harder-line <a href="http://www.pewforum.org/2013/07/18/brazils-changing-religious-landscape/">Pentecostals and Neopentecostal churches</a>–including the wildly successful <a href="https://rlp.hds.harvard.edu/faq/assembly-god">Assembly of God</a> and the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.</p> <p>Both spread what is called the &#8220;<a href="https://www.christianpost.com/news/prosperity-gospel-latching-onto-evangelical-rise-brazil-amid-economic-hardship.html">prosperity doctrine</a>,&#8221; promising <a href="https://www.ft.com/content/9047c83c-197d-11e5-a130-2e7db721f996">personal salvation</a> and financial success to people who trust God, work hard and abstain from all alcohol, gambling and other vices.</p> <p>For many poor people in Rio’s favelas, this is an appealing offer.</p> <p>As ever more Brazilians convert to Evangelical Christianity, traditional religions are losing members. Between 2000 and 2010, when the last national census was taken, the number of Catholics in Brazil dropped 9 percent. Followers of Candomblé and Umbanda <a href="http://m.folha.uol.com.br/poder/2016/12/1844365-deixam-de-ser-catolicos-ao-menos-9-milhoes-afirma-datafolha.shtml?mobile">declined 23 percent</a>.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img src="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/evangelical-church-1024x683.jpg" alt="evangelical church" class="wp-image-29142" srcset="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/evangelical-church-1024x683.jpg 1024w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/evangelical-church-300x200.jpg 300w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/evangelical-church-768x512.jpg 768w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/evangelical-church-610x407.jpg 610w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/evangelical-church.jpg 1200w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Evangelicals raise their hands in prayer at the Assembly of God Victory in Christ Church in Rio. Photo: Leo Correa</figcaption></figure> <h2>Good v. evil</h2> <p>Some Evangelical leaders who preach the prosperity doctrine also see these <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/afro-brazilian-religions-struggle-against-evangelical-hostility/2015/02/05/b6a30c6e-aaf9-11e4-8876-460b1144cbc1_story.html?utm_term=.1fb994c29b40">Afro-Brazilian religions</a> as dangerously un-Christian, even going as far as calling them evil.</p> <p>Edir Macedo, the multi-millionaire bishop of Brazil’s Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, <a href="http://portais4.ufes.br/posgrad/teses/tese_3321_Wal%E9ria_Vieira_de_Almeida.pdf">wrote</a> in <a href="https://blogs.universal.org/bispomacedo/2012/05/19/orixas-caboclos-e-guias-deuses-ou-demonios/">his 1997 book “Orixás, Caboclos and False Gods or Demons”</a> that Afro-Brazilian religions “seek to keep us from God. They are enemies of Him and the human race.”</p> <p>“This struggle with Satan is necessary … to eternal salvation,” he added.</p> <p>The book sold three million copies before it was <a href="http://www1.folha.uol.com.br/folha/cotidiano/ult95u115122.shtml">banned by federal authorities</a> in 2005. But Mr. Macedo still peddles his message to his estimated 5.2 million followers at 13,000 affiliated churches around the country.</p> <p>For preachers espousing a binary spiritual worldview, “good” Christians must wage holy war against “evil” practitioners of Candomblé and Umbanda.</p> <p>Though black commentators point out that this theological interpretation is just thinly veiled religious discrimination, some parishioners are heeding the call to “<a href="https://g1.globo.com/rio-de-janeiro/noticia/traficante-mais-antigo-no-poder-no-rio-guarabu-garante-liberdade-com-olheiros-e-propina-a-pms-da-ilha-diz-policia.ghtml">cleanse</a>” the world of Satan’s work.</p> <p>That includes a handful of drug kingpins, who prohibit adherents of Afro-Brazilian religions from practicing their faith in gang-controlled neighborhoods. Residents caught wearing the religious garb typical of Candomblé and Umbanda may be expelled from the community.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img src="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/shutterstock_1582826122.jpg" alt="Baianas wash the stairs of the Church of Bonfim" class="wp-image-29143" srcset="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/shutterstock_1582826122.jpg 1000w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/shutterstock_1582826122-300x200.jpg 300w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/shutterstock_1582826122-768x512.jpg 768w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/shutterstock_1582826122-610x407.jpg 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px" /><figcaption>In some gang-controlled parts of Rio, just wearing the religious garb of Candomblé or Umbanda could lead to expulsion. Photo: Joa Souza/Shutterstock</figcaption></figure> <h2>The prison-to-church pipeline</h2> <p>My research suggests that <a href="https://brazilian.report/podcast/2019/07/31/brazil-prisons-became-war-zones/">Brazil’s chaotic, overcrowded prisons</a> exacerbate the Evangelical-gang connection.</p> <p>The government is only nominally in control of most public prisons in Brazil. In practice, they are <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/04/opinion/brazils-deadly-prison-system.html">governed by one of Brazil&#8217;s leading drug trafficking organizations</a>, which run their trafficking and racketeering businesses there and <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/01/17/brazils-prison-massacres-are-a-frightening-window-into-gang-warfare/?utm_term=.caf8689bc967">recruit their rank and file from behind bars</a>.</p> <p>Faith groups, too, have <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/us-brazil-drugs-church/brazil-evangelicals-seek-drug-gangs-lost-souls-idUSN0132664320080915">a long tradition in Brazil’s prisons</a>. Previously, these <a href="http://carceraria.org.br/tag/igreja-catolica">prison ministries</a> were <a href="http://www.fbac.org.br/index.php/en/realidade-atual/map-of-the-apacs-in-brazil">predominantly Catholic</a>. Today, however, 80 of the 100 faith-based organizations subcontracted to run social programs in prisons <a href="https://global.oup.com/academic/product/if-i-give-my-soul-9780190238995?cc=us&amp;lang=en&amp;">are Evangelical churches</a>.</p> <p>As a result, charismatic Christianity has spread quickly through the criminal justice system.</p> <p>Jailhouse conversions are common. Inmates who adopt Evangelicalism are frequently housed in separate prison wings that <a href="https://conservancy.umn.edu/bitstream/handle/11299/137508/Johnson_umn_0130E_13041.pdf?sequence=1">are notable for their order and cleanliness</a>. Some have even <a href="http://www.researchonreligion.org/church-organization/andrew-johnson-on-pentecostals-in-prison-in-brazil">established their own ministries</a> inside jail. Developing positive relationships with local Rio pastors while in jail can tighten a gang’s grip on power once released.</p> <p>Converted traffickers control many Rio de Janeiro favelas, particularly in the Baixada Fluminense—a sprawl of townships in the city’s poor northern outskirts.</p> <p>Over the past century, the area has seen <a href="http://puc-riodigital.com.puc-rio.br/Texto/Desafios-2015/Explosao-demografica%2C-o-grande-no-da-Regiao-Metropolitana-25497.html#.WfKEnFtSyUk">waves of migration</a> from Brazil’s North and Northeast, where Afro-Brazilian religions have traditionally prospered. The Baixada Fluminense has at least 253 <a href="http://www.nima.puc-rio.br/images/MAPCMRA-RJ/TEXTOS/Cartilha%20Mapeamento%20com%20codigo.pdf">Candomblé and Umbanda terreiros</a>, more than any other municipality in the state.</p> <p>The Baixada Fluminense is also one of Rio’s most dangerous regions. Murder rates have fallen slightly across most of the city over the past decade, but not in the Baixada Fluminense. According to Brazil’s <a href="http://www.ispvisualizacao.rj.gov.br/Letalidade.html">Institute for Public Security</a>, 2,147 of the 6,714 murders reported in Rio state so far this year occurred in the Baixada Fluminense.</p> <p>Described by locals as the “Wild West,” the area is home to <a href="https://apublica.org/2017/09/a-baixada-fluminense-e-invisivel/">famously corrupt public officials</a> who have long worked with <a href="http://bandnewsfmrio.band.uol.com.br/editorias-detalhes/mp-denuncia-milicianos-da-baixada-fluminense">militia and mafia groups</a> to intimidate their rivals. This patronage relationship allows drug traffickers, Evangelical or otherwise, to operate with impunity.</p> <p>More than <a href="https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/ilustrissima/2019/09/relatos-apontam-proliferacao-de-ataques-as-religioes-afro-brasileiras.shtml">a third of violent attacks</a> on Afro-Brazilian temples this year occurred in the Baixada Fluminense.</p> <h2>Fighting back</h2> <p>The Brazilian government has started taking notice. In November 2019, the <a href="https://g1.globo.com/rj/rio-de-janeiro/noticia/2019/11/19/mpf-recomenda-reparacao-as-vitimas-de-ataques-a-terreiros-na-baixada-fluminense.ghtml">federal public prosecutor’s office</a> urged Rio de Janeiro authorities to compensate victims of religious intolerance both “materially and symbolically,” particularly in the Baixada Fluminense. But proposals on how to actually support them have yet to leave the page.</p> <p>Brazilian faith communities, in contrast, are actively fighting back against rising religious discrimination in Brazil. In September, an estimated 100,000 people joined Rio’s <a href="https://oglobo.globo.com/rio/pedidos-de-respeito-amor-dao-tom-da-12-caminhada-em-defesa-da-liberdade-religiosa-23949902">annual walk for religious freedom</a>, one of the largest gatherings since the procession’s inception 12 years ago.</p> <p>Evangelicals, Catholics, Baha&#8217;i, Buddhists, Jews and Hari Krishnas packed Rio’s iconic Copacabana beach. Dressed in white, the traditional color of Candomble and Umbanda religious celebrations, they marched in solidarity with Afro-Brazilians.</p> <p>There may be conflict in Brazil’s religious diversity, but there is unity, too.</p> <p>— <em>Dandara Tinoco contributed reporting.</em></p> <div class="wp-block-image"><figure class="alignleft"><img src="http://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/logo-a0073854423c0c04eddfa9074f700eaf-300x24.png" alt="the conversation brazil article" class="wp-image-398" srcset="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/logo-a0073854423c0c04eddfa9074f700eaf-300x24.png 300w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/logo-a0073854423c0c04eddfa9074f700eaf-768x61.png 768w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/logo-a0073854423c0c04eddfa9074f700eaf-1024x81.png 1024w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px" /></figure></div> <h6 style="text-align:right">Originally published on<br><a href="https://theconversation.com/brazil-must-protect-its-remaining-uncontacted-indigenous-amazonians-84141"><strong>The Conversation</strong></a></h6> <img src="https://counter.theconversation.com/content/128679/count.gif?distributor=republish-lightbox-advanced" alt="The Conversation" width="1" height="1" style="border: none !important; box-shadow: none !important; margin: 0 !important; max-height: 1px !important; max-width: 1px !important; min-height: 1px !important; min-width: 1px !important; opacity: 0 !important; outline: none !important; padding: 0 !important; text-shadow: none !important" /> <p>

 
Robert Muggah

Robert Muggah is a specialist in cities, security, migration and new technologies. In 2011 he co-founded the Igarapé Institute – a think-tank working on data-driven safety and justice across Latin America and Africa, where he is currently the director of research.

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