Things That Matter

Evangelical Christian Gangs Have Initiated Violent Holy War Against Afro-Brazilian Religious Groups

Evangelical religious sects are intrinsically linked to the gangs in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The result has been a rise in Brazilian converts to evangelicalism, and increasing attacks on Afro-Brazilian religions who are viewed as “satanic.”

The city mayor is a bishop in a Pentecostal church, home to the right-wing President, and Rio is where the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, a powerful evangelical church founded by known anti-black bishop Edir Macedo.

Robert Muggah, who researches violence in Latin America, has highlighted Brazilian’s stark evangelical turn and how it is being weaponized against poor, black Brazilians in The Conversation for Associated Press.

What do God and gangs have to do with each other?

Brazilian prisons are not largely state-controlled. Instead, they are nefariously run by a single drug cartel, that uses the prison system to recruit new members and which enables them to run their organized crime operation. In Brazil, 80 of the 100 faith-based organizations that run social programs in prison are evangelical.

It turns out, the “charismatic Christianity” that has taken over Brazil is a great recruiting tool. Inmates who convert to evangelicalism are often rewarded by having their quality of life improved in the prison.

 “Some pastors and denominations strategically bet on converting traffickers in privileged places in the hierarchy of crime,” Christina Vital da Cunha, an associate professor of sociology at Federal Fluminense University, told the Washington Post. 

If an inmate were to foster a positive relationship with a pastor it could mean that once released the person is coaxed into gang affiliation.

“Some of them call themselves ‘Jesus drug dealers,’ creating a unique identity,” said Gilbert Stivanello, commander of the Rio police department’s crimes of intolerance unit, told the Washington Post. “They carry weapons and sell drugs, but feel entitled to forbid African-influenced religions by stating that they are related to the devil.”

These evangelical drug traffickers have apparently taken control of Baixada Fluminense, a region that was once a haven for Afro-Brazilian religions. In 2019, over a third of the attacks on black Brazilian temples happened in Baixada Fluminense.

“According to Brazil’s Institute for Public Security, 2,147 of the 6,714 murders reported in Rio state so far this year occurred in Baixada Fluminense,” Muggah wrote.

Anti-blackness is the dark side of this new religious doctrine.

Afro-Brazilians have always been persecuted in the wake of colonialism. For years many have believed Afro-Brazilian religions are satanic. Wealthy bishop Edir Macedo sold three million copies of a book describing Afro-Brazilians as enemies of the human race before it was banned in 2005.

As ever more Brazilians convert to evangelicalism, traditional religions there are losing members. Between 2000 and 2010, when the latest national census was taken, the number of Catholics in Brazil dropped 9%. Followers of the Afro-Brazilian religions Candomblé and Umbanda declined 23 percent,” Muggah notes.

Parishioners are calling for a “cleanse” of Satan’s work which is coded language for ridding Brazil of Afro-Brazilian religious. When gangs control neighborhoods they tend to ban the practice of Afro-Brazilian religions, resulting in community members who do being expelled.

In Rio state, reports of religious-based violence against followers of Afro-Brazilian religions have risen from 14 in 2016 to 123 in the first 10 months of this year. State authorities call those figures vast undercounts — many victims, they say, are afraid to come forward. More than 200 temples have shut down in the face of threats this year,” the Washington Post notes. 

Why are Brazilians increasingly connecting to a religion that preaches hate?

With President Jair Bolsonaro in power, evangelicals have 195 of 513 seats in congress. The rise in right-wing evangelicalism coincides with a rise in right-wing Christianity all over the world. However, each nation’s conditions are specific to the region. Evangelical music in Brazil is a billion-dollar industry, televangelism rules the TV, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God claims it has sent out 14,000 church members — an army of proselytizers — to recruit inmates. 

In areas where poverty is rampant, charismatic Christianity promises wealth. The prosperity gospel of these religious sects claims that not only will you gain salvation from cutting out vices like alcohol and gambling, but devotion will lead to financial success.

It’s almost as though these right-wing leaders have combined the rhetoric of the church with the rhetoric of colonialism and the rhetoric of multi-level marketing schemes. A dangerous cocktail for vulnerable people who need help in this life and are hoping for something more profound in the possible next.

While all religions are observed in a way that ranges from the healthy to outright zealotry, of course not all Brazilian evangelicals and Christians support the right-wing sect of the fast-growing Pentecostals and Neopentecostal churches who tie hatred into their rhetoric.

Advocates, citizens, and faith communities are fighting back. In September, Muggah notes, 100,000 people participated in Rio’s annual walk for religious freedom. Federal prosecutors are urging for compensation to those who are victims of religious hate crimes.

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