“Soldiers of the faith.”

Members of an Afro-Brazilian community demonstrate against religious intolerance in Rio de Janeiro © Thomas Milz (KNA)

Brazil has a reputation for being a tolerant country. Now, however, cases of religious intolerance are on the rise, especially in Rio de Janeiro, where Afro-Brazilian communities are suffering from attacks by evangelical Christians.

"Break everything, everything, in Jesus' name!"Loudly, one of the seven armed drug dealers demands that the priestess smash her Afro-Brazilian idols in the religious meeting house. "You are the biggest devil! All evil must be destroyed in the name of Jesus."

Then they urinate on the destroyed statues, tear off the believers' ritual necklaces with the butt of a rifle. Then they put the crime video online. Another video shows a priest first tearing down his meeting house and then tearing ritual necklaces.

Drug gang member: "Next time I'll kill you"

Next to it, a bandit threatens with a baseball bat with "dialogo" carved into it – dialogue. "Next time I'll kill you," shouts the man with the baseball bat. "The only flag here is that of the TCP and that of Jesus Christ. Macumba we do not want here. Tell everyone that I belong to Jesus."

TCP is the drug gang "Drittes Kommando", and "Macumba" is a swear word for Afro-Brazilian rituals: "devil stuff". Played out the horrific scenes in the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. Here, most people are dark-skinned, of African origin.

Archaic methods, twisted morals

In the midst of a chaos of poverty, violence and drugs, drug dealers like to act as guardians of morality with archaic methods and twisted morals. Videos of them shaving off the hair of unfaithful wives also circulate on the Internet. Evangelical churches are growing fastest in the favelas. Within a few decades, their share of the total population has already grown to over 20 percent.

People like to blame Afro-Brazilian religions for the general misery, says priest Dona Heloisa. "Every day we are attacked by evangelicals who discriminate against us and say we are devil worshippers."

Two thirds of the assaults hit Afro-Brazilians

Perpetrators call themselves "soldiers of faith". Many have been converted in prison by evangelical pastors, many of whom were once drug dealers themselves. They have been banning Afro-Brazilian priests from the favelas for about ten years now. But such an accumulation of cases of intolerance is new. Since the beginning of August, 32 cases have been reported to Rio's authorities.

Overall, Brazil's diverse society seems to be becoming more rigid and discriminatory. Whereas the nationwide intolerance hotline received just 15 reports in 2011, it had already received 759 in 2016. Attacks on Spiritist centers or Christian churches were also registered; however, in more than two-thirds of the cases it is against Afro-Brazilians.

Protest march against intolerance

"The numbers are increasing because of evangelical groups," says Eder Jo Soares, a member of the Afro-Brazilian community "Filhos de Gandhi" (Sons of Gandhi). He does not understand what goes through their heads. "We don't want holy wars here in Brazil after all." Together with hundreds of Afro-Brazilians, the "Filhos de Gandhi" participated in a protest march against intolerance at Copacabana over the weekend.

Including Spiritists, Evangelicals, Lutherans and Buddhists. Rio's Catholic archbishop had also called for participation. "This is more than intolerance, these are already crimes," said Fabiane Gaspar of a Spiritist group. "Politics must provide answers." But the policy seems to be more part of the problem.

Rio's mayor calls for fight

Marcelo Crivella has been mayor of Rio since January, a "bishop" of the "Universal Church of the Kingdom of God". The church founded by Crivella's uncle Edir Macedo is known for its outbursts against Afro-Brazilian religions. And Macedo's speeches are full of calls to fight the devil on earth. Crivella himself has in the past denigrated homosexuals and members of other religions in books and speeches.

That was a long time ago, he says. But he was the first mayor in decades not to attend the opening of the carnival, which in Rio is dedicated to African traditions. He cut off funding to a memorial for enslaved Africans in the city center. When he changed the licensing procedures for religious events in May, Afro-Brazilian groups protested strongly. Crivella remains silent on the recent attacks.

Bandits replace police

"At the beginning of the 20. At the beginning of the twentieth century, it was the police who destroyed African places of worship, now it's the bandits," said priest and anthropologist Pai Rodney. "And the state, through its inaction, is writing the script for the horrors against black people and their culture."

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