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RIO DE JANEIRO, Jul 3 2009 (IPS) - “Ialorixá” Gilda died of a massive heart attack in 1999 after members of a pentecostal church swarmed into her temple and hit her over the head with a Bible. Her death drew attention to the growing religious intolerance in Brazil, which was denounced this week at the United Nations.
The sectarianism especially targets religions of African origin, as in the case of Candomblé priestess Gilda, according to the report that Brazil’s Committee Against Religious Intolerance (CCIR) presented to Martin Uhomoibhi, president of the U.N. Human Rights Council.
But it is also expressed against Jews, Catholics, Muslims and spiritists, says the report presented by the CCIR, which is made up of representatives of a number of different faiths.
The CCIR, which documented 15 cases of religious intolerance in four Brazilian states, accuses pentecostal churches, especially the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus, founded in 1977 in Brazil), of attacks and harassment against people of other faiths, and of spreading religious intolerance.
In the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God’s (UCKG) efforts to draw in people, which are based on “demonising” Afro-Brazilian religions, “Jews are also portrayed as ‘the killers of Christ’, Catholics as ‘devil worshippers’, traditional Protestants as ‘false Christians’, and Muslims as ‘demonic’ because they follow Mohammed instead of Jesus,” says the report.
The CCIR, established a little over a year ago, consists of representatives of 18 religious institutions and human rights groups, like the Israelite Federation of Rio de Janeiro, the Congregação Espírita Umbandista do Brasil (CEUB) and groups representing Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist, Candomblé, indigenous and gypsy (Roma) faiths.
The CCIR arose “from the increasingly urgent need to defend the practitioners of African-based religions in the face of efforts aimed at annihilating and demonising their religious practices,” says the document presented to the U.N.
The aim of the CCIR is to get the U.N. to name an investigator to verify the situation on the ground and to get the government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to accelerate his “National Plan Against Religious Intolerance” in order to confront what the report calls “a state of religious dictatorship.”
The Brazilian government is due to launch its National Plan early next year.
Ivanir dos Santos, chairman of the CCIR and head of the Centre for Marginalised Populations (CEAP), told IPS that pentecostal churches are seeking political power, not only in Brazil but throughout Latin America, where they have expanded enormously.
Santos pointed out that founder of the UCKG, Bishop Edir Macedo, has stated that the aim is to participate in elections and “create a theocratic state.”
The UCKG, one of the largest pentecostal churches in Brazil, has 5,000 churches throughout Brazil and is active in dozens of countries around the world.
The group has major political clout in Brazil, said Santos, with seats in parliament and positions in the government, as well as party alliances at the local, provincial and federal levels.
According to a report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, part of the Pew Research Centre, an evangelical congressional caucus consisting mainly of pentecostals holds around 10 percent of seats in the country’s legislature.
In addition, the UCKG helped found the Brazilian Republican Party in 2005.
According to the CCIR, the forms taken by religious intolerance range from invasions and destruction of temples to discrimination against children in schools and even physical assaults.
For instance, the report says the Igreja Renascer em Cristo (Reborn in Christ Church), founded in São Paulo in 1986, “incites the invasion and destruction of spiritist temples, as occurred in a Rio de Janeiro neighbourhood in June 2008, where all of the liturgical objects were destroyed and the faithful” in the Centro Espírita Cruz de Oxalá were attacked.
“Fascism and Nazism started out this way, by demonising different groups,” said the chairman of the CCIR.
In the last census, 73 percent of people in this country of nearly 190 million declared themselves Roman Catholic. But pentecostal groups have experienced dramatic growth, climbing in 60 years from 2.5 percent of the population to 15.4 percent in 2000, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), which carries out the national census.
Evangelical churches themselves claim to represent 30 percent of the population.
IBGE also found that just 1.3 percent of Brazilians identified themselves as practitioners of an Afro-Brazilian religion.
But Gilda’s daughter Jaciara Ribeiro, a follower of one of the more orthodox currents of Candomblé, said the number is much higher.
“Not everyone admits that they practice Candomblé. Many people are Catholics on Sunday but on Monday they can be found in the ‘terreiro’ (temple),” Ribeiro told IPS.
The 42-year-old Ribeiro is now a “ialorixá” in her mother’s Candomblé temple in Salvador, the capital of the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia.
She has become a leader in the struggle against religious intolerance, which she and fellow Candomblé practitioners suffer on a daily basis even though Afro-Brazilian religions have a broad influence in the state of Bahia, home to the country’s largest population of people of African descent.
January 21, the date of Mae (Mother) Gilda’s death, was declared the National Day Against Religious Intolerance in a decree issued by President Lula.
In Salvador there are some 1,500 officially registered terreiros, but the real number is estimated at around 5,000.
“Our Candomblé temples are as sacred as any other, the only difference is that our faith has been dubbed ‘black magic’,” said Ribeiro.
She cited other cases of intolerance, such as children facing discrimination in schools by evangelical teachers who tell them “Candomblé is a thing of the devil.”
“But actually the devil is a concept of the Catholic Church. We worship Exum, a messenger between the natural and supernatural worlds,” she said.
One of the chapters in the CCIR report is dedicated to the clash between pentecostal churches and the press, such as legal action taken by the UCKG against the Folha de São Paulo newspaper.
The report refers to “the neo-Pentecostal dominance over” the print and broadcast media.
Religions with African roots, like Candomblé and Umbanda, have historically face persecution and stigma in Brazil.
Brought over by African slaves in the early 16th century, they were considered the last frontier of cultural resistance by blacks, according to the CCIR. Although the ban on such religions was lifted in the mid-20th century, the prejudice and discrimination did not disappear, the report says.
The CCIR refers to the new offensive against Afro-Brazilian religions as “a neo-inquisition” and “a return to ignorance,” which it says is occurring despite a law on religious intolerance that provides for penalties such as sentences of up to five years in prison.
IPS received no response from the UCKG, despite repeated attempts to obtain comment.
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