RIO DE JANEIRO – “They have expelled priests, broken sacred objects and people even died,” Babalawo Ivanir dos Santos, a Yoruba priest, said of the current situation in Brazil where attacks on Afro-Brazilian religions doubled in 2019.
Drug traffickers who consider themselves evangelicals are responsible for these attacks since they believe minority religions are an assault on their God.
In 2019, Brazil registered over 200 attacks against Afro-Brazilian religions, such as Umbanda and Candomble, a 100 percent increase compared to 2018, the Commission for Combating Religious Intolerance (CCIR) said.
Evangelicalism has spread across the South American country in recent years and today a third of the population is affiliated to the belief system.
African-inspired religions, however, are followed by less than 0,5 percent of the population.
Experts believe this phenomenon is the result of the rise of religious fanaticism in Brazil.
Although the attacks are mainly concentrated in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Bahia, three of the most important states in Brazil, authorities have registered cases across the entire country.
One of the most recent ones took place in December, where the Cabocla Jurema Umbanda Temple was attacked by criminals who destroyed and burned part of its facilities.
It was not the first time the Umbanda temple had been attacked.
“There are people who know how to differentiate religion and how to respect that difference, but there are other people who, unfortunately, do not know how to respect,” Eris Paula Carvalho Rocha, ‘filha de Santo’ (postulant to a priest) in the Umbanda temple, told Efe.
Authorities are investigating whether the crime was perpetrated by evangelical drug gangs since the modus operandi was similar to other attacks.
Both Umbanda and Candomble religions believe in a supreme God although the focus is on spirits and forces of nature considered divine ancestors known as ‘orixas’.
Conservative movements like evangelicalism consider the multitude of deities they worship and their practices as pagan, according to experts.
They (evangelical gangs) believe they are “fighting evil,” Christina Vital, a sociologist at the Fluminense Federal University and author of the book “Oraçao do Traficante “(Drug Trafficker’s Prayer) told EFE.
Evangelicalism is the second most popular religion in Brazil with 31 percent of the population ascribing to it, just behind Catholicism which remains the dominant religion (50 percent), according to a survey released by Brazilian polling institute Datafolha in January.
It is estimated that by 2032 evangelicalism may become the most powerful religion in the country in terms of the number of followers.
Evangelicals have expanded their realm of influence to politics and even have a parliamentary seat.
They were also key to far-right Jair Bolsonaro’s victory in the 2018 presidential elections.
The rise of the evangelical movement has been particularly robust in the favelas, some of which are controlled by drug traffickers.
Throughout history, gangs have been linked to religions including Catholicism, Umbanda and Candomble.
According to Vital, these communities have experienced a change in their religious outlook and evangelicalism is used by drug traffickers as inspiration to give up crime.
“When they are in the midst of criminal activity they start recognizing that religiosity as a protection network and a source of inspiration for when the moment of departure comes,” the sociologist added.
Vital’s views on the situation are partially shared by Yoruba priest Dos Santos.
He acknowledges the number of evangelicals has grown dramatically in Brazilian prisons due to the benefits prisoners are offered if they convert to the religion.
“But when they leave prison they continue with drug trafficking, so what they do is attack what they call evil figures,” he explained.
Dos Santos said evangelicalism has political and economic goals because it is not a religion but “uses religion for a political purpose.”
“Intolerance has spread throughout the social sphere, education, work environments, neighbors’ relationships, etc,” he added.