The Cabocla Jurema Umbanda Temple outside Brasilia was preparing to celebrate its 50th anniversary in January. But, on Christmas Day, it was burned to the ground and all its sacred items stolen. This was the latest of hundreds of attacks by Brazil’s rising criminal actor: Evangelical Christian gangs.
No one was injured or killed in the attack on Cabocla Jurema. But this is not always the case. In October 2018, Romualdo Rosário da Costa, a well-known Candomblé practitioner and international advocate for Afro-Brazilians better known as Moa de Katendê, was stabbed 12 times in Salvador, capital of the northeastern state of Bahia.
Rosário da Costa was out celebrating the results of the first round of Brazil’s presidential elections, which had set up a second-round clash between his favored candidate, Fernando Haddad, of the left-wing Workers’ Party (PT) and Jair Bolsonaro, of the far-right Social Liberal Party (PSL).
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His killer, Paulo Sérgio Ferreira de Santana, was a PSL supporter who confessed to police that he attacked Rosário da Costa after the latter said he did not like Bolsonaro, Bahia’s secretary of public security was quoted as saying by Globo.
Less than two months later, Bolsonaro was sworn into office. And attacks by religious criminal groups have soared. In the state of Rio alone, 123 reports of religious-based violence were seen between January and October 2019, compared to 14 for all of 2016, the Washington Post reported.
Robert Muggah, founder of Brazil’s Igarapé Institute, told InSight Crime that 200 Candomblé and Umbanda temples have been shut down due to threats and intimidation during 2019, double the number in 2018.
Candomblé and Umbanda are two Afro-Brazilian religious traditions with millions of followers nationwide. But their numbers have decreased as devotees of Neo-Pentecostalism have risen. From 5 percent of the population in the 1950s, 22 percent declared themselves as Neo-Pentecostals in the 2010 census, and Muggah thinks this could top 30 percent in the upcoming 2020 census. This form of Evangelical Protestantism has become a powerful political force, seeking to reshape the country’s outlook on sexuality, family life, and even freedom of speech and to worship. And the Afro-Brazilian communities have felt its wrath.
“Practitioners of Afro-Brazilian religions are among the poorest and most vulnerable populations in Brazilian cities. They are strong prejudices among an increasingly orthodox Evangelical population against non-Christian religions,” said Muggah.
“With little support from the surrounding communities and with limited recourse to legal institutions, they are often victimized by militia and gangs.”
The latest flashpoint for this social division has been A Primeira Tentação de Cristo (The First Temptation of Christ), a satirical comedy by Brazilian troupe Porta dos Fundos broadcast on Netflix in which Jesus Christ is implied to be gay and Mary smokes marijuana.
On Christmas Eve, three men in ski masks launched Molotov cocktails at the front door of the Porta dos Fundos’ office building in Rio de Janeiro. One of the suspected perpetrators of the attack, Eduardo Fauzi, who has fled to Russia, issued a statement that he was a follower of President Bolsonaro.
Despite the clamor for the government to do something about such attacks, a judge in Rio ordered Netflix to remove the movie, saying it went against the “honor of millions,” but this ban was overturned by the Supreme Court on January 10.
In a statement sent to InSight Crime, Porta dos Fundos said that “we are against any act of censorship, violence, illegality, and authoritarianism that we no longer expected to have to repudiate by 2020.”
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To date, neither President Jair Bolsonaro nor Rio Governor Wilson Witzel have condemned the attack on Porta dos Fundos and have barely spoken out about the repeated violence against Candomblé and Umbanda practitioners and places of worship. To the religious gangs, this has become tantamount to permission.
And this fanaticism has spread to Brazil’s criminal gangs as well. Álvaro Malaquias Santa Rosa, alias “Peixão,” a senior figure within favela gang Pure Third Command (Terceiro Comando Puro - TCP) allegedly helped create the Soldiers of Jesus (Bonde de Jesus), a new criminal group with evangelical motivations, in Duque de Caxias, a city near Rio.
(A wanted poster offering a 2,000 reais ($500) reward for TCP leader Álvaro Malaquias Santa Rosa, alias "Peixão." Courtesy of Brazilian police.)
“Some of them call themselves ‘Jesus drug dealers,’ creating a unique identity. They carry weapons and sell drugs, but feel entitled to forbid African-influenced religions by stating that they are related to the devil,” Gilbert Stivanello, commander of the Rio police department’s crimes of intolerance unit, told the Washington Post.
SEE ALSO: Pure Third Command Profile
One Candomblé priest told the newspaper that the TCP permits religious ceremonies to happen only on certain days, allowing temples to receive only a few visitors and forbidding members of the public from wearing the white clothing traditional of the Afro-Brazilian faith.
Eight members of the Bonde de Jesus group were arrested in August after ransacking a temple in Duque de Caxias and threatening the 85-year-old mother of the chief priest at gunpoint, O Dia reported.
But such arrests do little to dispel the impunity that surrounds this new form of criminal group. While casting themselves as defenders of Christ, their piety does not extend far. TCP is still engaged in violence and drug trafficking. But impunity for their religious crimes risks quickly becoming impunity for all their crimes.
“There is a deafening silence from federal, state and city officials when it comes to rising religious violence,” Muggah told InSight Crime.
The Rio representative of the Commission to Fight Religious Intolerance, Ivanir dos Santos, has blasted Witzel, saying he has not been able to even meet with the governor despite repeated requests, Globo reported.
There have been some attempts to organize a response to religious violence. In 2018, Rio de Janeiro police created the Delegacia de Crimes Raciais e Delitos de Intolerância (Racial Crime Police Station and Intolerance Offenses - Decradi). In September 2019, the Attorney General’s Office called on the government to do more to stop religious attacks, calling them a threat to “Brazil’s very democracy.” But if such attempts have had any discouraging effect on these assaults, they are yet to be seen.
“I have no doubt that if this had been a synagogue or a Christian church, the attitude of the State would be different,” said dos Santos last July during a protest against attacks against Candomblé and Umbanda temples.
While Bolsonaro’s popularity is suffering, he is unlikely to start acting on this. His silence on religious violence does not seem to be a root cause of the discontent toward his government. A petition to ban the Netflix movie received over 1 million signatures after all. But continuing silence means more tacit approval. And temples will continue to burn.