The long history of religious intolerance in Brazil

Helton Levy
8 min readMay 16, 2018

One finds tales of religious persecution since the earliest periods of Brazilian history. But the increasing religious attacks in the last years has been largely under-discussed. On the one hand, it remained tied to the growth of neo-Pentecostal churches, which demonise the Afro-Brazilian cults. On the other hand, there ar intersectional factors that one traces from contexts of race, class, and concentrated political power. I discussed with Anthropologist Vagner Silva about all these issues.

Members of Jurema join a worship in Recife (Diego Herculano/NurPhoto)

Umbanda’s sites profaned, a spiritualist centre depredated, spaces for Afro worship getting no license to remain open. These episodes are not able to encapsulate all the degrees of religious intolerance that has existed in Brazil, but, still are indicators of how the issue has escalated over the past two decades. Twenty years after an episode known as “the kick in the saint”, which involved a bishop from the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG) who appeared on TV literally hitting a statue of Our Lady of Aparecida with his foot, a bishop of his church has become the Mayor of Rio de Janeiro. Marcelo Crivella, who gets into the office under harsh criticism, has led to a new wave of debate not only on how tolerant is Brazil, but of how serious is the issue for the population.

Published in 2007 and recently re-edited, Religious Intolerance: The impact of the neopentecostalism in the Afro-Brazilian Field”(Edusp) is a document of these multiple attacks, mostly against Afro-Brazilian cults. This book couldn’t be more up-to-date, as it gathers essays that approach both the history of such violence directed at religious groups as it reflects on its causes. The book’s organiser, Anthropologist Vagner Gonçalves da Silva, from USP, explains in this interview why neo-Pentecostal churches have been at odds with Afro-Brazilian religious to the extent of a broader perception that these are two groups at the heart of the problem.

Helton Levy: Why, when talking about religious intolerance in Brazil, is the theme frequently related to neo-Pentecostal evangelical churches and African-born cults?

Vagner Silva: These are not the only fields in which there are examples of intolerance. But if you take Brazil in the last 30 years, those two groups are the ones that have had the most conflicts. I would not even say that there aretwogroups, because it gives the impression that these conflicts are mutual. I would say that there is more attack from the Neo-Pentecostal evangelical churches in relation to the Afro group, and the Afro group has only begun to react. The focus on Neo-Pentecostal evangelical churches and Afro-Christian religions is because of the dimension that this battle has acquired and is acquiring, and in relation to the politicization of these attacks. They begin more internally in the pulpit of the church, and one even has to question whether there really exists a process of intolerance. Because, in fact, the priest saying what he thinks about his religion and the religion of others is obviously part of freedom of worship. In the domestic sphere of the church, I think that evaluations about what is right or wrong, what is true or false religion, are part of every system. These attacks reach the maximum limits of the public sphere when evangelical politicians and their allies try to create laws to curb the expression of such religiosities, such as the law against animal sacrifice, laws against despatches in public areas

Helton Levy — If this behaviour of expressing views on other people’s religions is part of the freedom of worship, what we call when such attacks happen?

Vagner Silva — The problem is when it starts to come out of the [neo-Pentecostal evangelical] churches. First, this happened by reaching the means of proselytizing that these churches have pursued, for example, through radio, television, newspapers. Later, it began with not only verbal attacks, but the physic assaults, it came in with the invasion of terreiros, with the destruction of images and aggression against the members of these communities. There are episodes in which they [Afro-Brazilian worshipers] were thrown rocks, coarse salt, sulfuric acid. To the point that, now, we have cases that are bordering with crime, in which terreiros are arsoned, as it has happened in Brasilia. These attacks reach the maximum limits of the public sphere when evangelical politicians and their allies try to create laws to curb the expression of such religiosities, such as the law against animal sacrifice, laws against “despatches” [gifts to the gods] in public areas. I am not questioning the legitimacy of these laws, because any legislator can propose any kind of law, and there will be public debate. But in this case, the discussion is already contaminated by the presupposition that other religious expression is restrained. And it is this movement (neopentecostal) that puts the spiritual battle at the centre of its evangelizing aspect.

Helton Levy — Why has this type of attack become more frequent?

Vagner Silva — It begins exactly as characteristic of the Pentecostal movement. The division of this movement depends on the author, but it is a consensus that neo-Pentecostalism has emerged in the last 20 years. And it is this movement that puts the spiritual battle at the centre of its evangelizing aspect. Many say they have a truly evangelizing project behind them. Those most critical of the Neo-Pentecostal churches says that it is more of a spiritual first aid and that it is not part of an evangelizing strategy. I disagree, I think it’s part, but it’s a violent and aggressive strategy. People who are exorcised in churches often end up becoming members of these same churches.

Helton Levy — Since the first edition of your book in 2007, has religious intolerance in Brazil worsened?

Vagner Silva — In the last five years, it has gotten worse, and the reaction process of the terreiros has increased a lot. I say that the intensity of the attacks increases because the reaction to the attacks by the Afro religious also grew. In the last five years, many organizations of terreiros,social movements, NGOs and others have come in the defence of religious freedom. The confrontation has intensified, and we have even gone to court. Intecab, which is a religious organization, and Ceert,a labour regulator, have filed a lawsuit against the Record TV network accusing it of producing programs that convey religious intolerance. Organizations have won and now these groups will have a right of reply. These victories that the religious communities have achieved in Justice cause a counter-coat and, consequently, a counterattack. To the point of witnessing attacks that did not exist before. For example, ten, fifteen years ago, you had no cases of terreiroset afire, depredation, physical aggression.

Helton Levy — Do you think these examples of intolerance did not exist or were not notified?

Vagner Silva — I have collected a good part of the cases, from the press, from the ethnographies, and made a dossier which is the preface of the book. From what appeared in the press, cases with this level of violence did not exist. This increased from 2010 onwards, when more criminal acts happen.

Helton Levy — Thinking about the historical question, is there any parallel between religious intolerance and the history of Brazil and how the groups saw themselves in the past or is it a contemporary phenomenon?

Vagner Silva — The history of Afro-Brazilian cults shows that they have always been targets by such leading groups. If you take Brazil Colony, these groups were condemned and tried for the practice of heresy. Until then, you can say: any kind of dissident religion would be judged like this, including Judaism. The Inquisition was not made to combat the Afro religions, it also included the New Christians, anyone who did not profess the faith of the metropolis. When you have the advent of the Republic, things change. Because the state, of course, separates from the Church and it becomes a secular society. But if repression (to these religions) is no longer tied to the ideology of the State, it is tied to the Criminal Code.

Protest against religious intolerance in São Paulo, January 2016 (Gabriel Soares / Brazil Photo Press / AFP)

Helton Levy — Do you have any examples?

Vagner Silva — The first Brazilian Republican Criminal Code already includes crimes of healing,spiritism, magic, sorcery. So, this 1891 code framed and repressed the terreirosbased on this perception that it was not religion, it was a crime. Then the 1940 criminal code did not change that, it continues to frame it as crimes. Does this encompass a whole? Yes, but, more frequently, these laws have persecuted the Afro. The history of these services was always a story of repression. Not only because they belong to poor populations, but who are also marginalized and black. In the 1970s, more or less, there was a major transformation for a few reasons: the growth of Umbanda (another Afro-Brazilian form of worship) in the Southeast managed to take these cults into a more positive visibility, coming through white middle-class kardecism (based on French philosopher Allain Kardec), and there is also a movement of culture based on the Afro-Brazilian religion, which makes these religions appear in a more positive way. Then, you have the influence of Bahian artists like Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Maria Bethânia. You also see musicals on TV Globo showing Clara Nunes singing songs of the orishas. You have series on television, featuring the “saint’s mothers” (Afro-Brazilian priestesses), like in Tenda dos Milagres, based on Jorge Amado’s book. In the 70’s, then, being of the candomblé was cool.

Helton Levy — Is there any regional variation of how religious intolerance manifests across Brazil?

Vagner Silva — I see that it does not depend on region. You find attacks occurring in Salvador, Brasília, Rio de Janeiro, Goiânia. Regarding the neo-Pentecostal churches, they have a very standardized way of proselytizing, what may lead to the attack. I would say they are franchises from the same pattern. The procedure is the same. A neo-Pentecostal church in Salvador has the same procedure that the one in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. I perceive it based on the reactions from the terreiros, who are reporting similar attacks. There are some things that are symbolic. In Salvador, there was a mobilization in the City Council to transform the date of the aggression to Saint’s Mother(Mother Gildásia, who died due to an attack by the UCKG) during the local bank holiday that commemorated the Day of Fight against Religious Intolerance, which later turned into a national holiday. It was a local phenomenon that expressed events of national scope.

Helton Levy — Where is missing more debate about religious intolerance in Brazilian society?

Vagner Silva — Nowadays, people tend to minimize these religious attacks because they are occurring “downstairs”, among the disadvantaged classes. Who is attacking whom? It is the “poor” neopentecostal” citizen attacking the “poor macumbeiro” (follower of macumba, another Afro-Brazilian worship), as they call it. So, this is not affecting the elites. This is a “war”, as I call, but not these elites’ particular war, and even so has many implication. If it is a secular state, how could it intervene over these issues? For example, we have public concessions for TV broadcast owned by religious groups. These religious groups are using these concessions to put forward attacks against a few worships. But if the state intervenes, it will have to question its own condition of secular entity. Another example is that all public buildings bear a cross hanging on walls. The [Brazilian] Congress has promulgated the Constitution in the name of God.

Vagner Silva is an Associate Professor at the Department of Anthropology at the University of São Paulo. He is based in São Paulo, Brazil.

Helton Levy is a journalist and a PhD in Sociology. He dedicates to academic research based in London, UK.

First published at 29/12/2016 as part of a story for the Projeto Colabora



Helton Levy

Journalist, researcher & lecturer in media based in London. I am interested in media convergence from the margins of society. My website: