How evangelical gang leaders are bringing a Holy War to Brazil

Devotees take part in rituals and offer gifts in celebration of Yemanja Day, in Brazil, on February 2, 2012. Yemanja is an orisha, patron of the ocean, according to Afro-Brazilian religions. Photo: RAUL SPINASSE/AGENCIA A TARDE/AE. All rights reservedCharismatic
Christianity is on the rise
across Brazil. Even Rio, a
famously libertine city, elected an evangelical
mayor last year.
Now, evangelical Protestantism is so far-reaching in Rio that even some of the
city’s most notorious drug dealers claim to be spreading the gospel.

I study violence in
Latin America, and I have
observed a sharp increase in reports of religiously motivated crimes in Rio de
Janeiro over the past year, in particular attacks on
“terreiros” – the
temples belonging to the Candomblé and Umbanda faiths.

Brazil’s Evangelical Turn

Persecution of
these Afro-Brazilian
religions, whose
adherents are largely poor black Brazilians, has been around
since the 19th century. But studies in
Rio – both mine and those of other crime researchers – suggest that the current
wave of religious bigotry is more pointed, and more violent, than in the past.

While statistics
confirming this new trend are still poor, the increase in religious hate crimes
appears to coincide with the spread of evangelical Protestantism in Brazil.

Most converts are poor people attracted to the evangelical doctrine of personal salvation. 

Today roughly a
quarter of all Brazilians identify as Protestant, up from 5% in the 1960s. Many
Brazilian Protestants attend mainstream services. But the fastest-growing
denominations in Brazil are the
hard-line Pentecostals and
Neopentecostal churches, including the
wildly successful Assembly of God and the Universal Church of the Kingdom of

That is also
true in politics. Evangelical lawmakers currently hold 85 of 513 seats in
Brazil’s lower house of Congress, meaning that the religious right is shaping the
national debate on gay rights, racial
equality, women’s reproductive health, education and other social issues.

Rio de Janeiro
saw a 30% increase in
evangelicals from 2000 to 2010. Over the same period, the number of
Catholics and followers of Candomblé and Umbanda dropped by 9%
and 23%, respectively.

Most converts
are poor people attracted to the evangelical doctrine of personal
salvation. Today,
evangelical leaders in Rio’s impoverished favelas routinely deliver a message
of fidelity, purity and prosperity.

Some of them
also have a dim view of
Afro-Brazilian religions. For preachers
espousing a binary spiritual worldview, “good” Christians must wage holy war
against “evil” practitioners of Candomblé and Umbanda.

As Edir Macedo,
the multi-millionaire bishop of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of
God, wrote in his 1997 book Orixás, Caboclos and False Gods or Demons,
Afro-Brazilian religions “seek to keep us from God. They are enemies of Him and
the human race … This struggle with Satan is necessary … to eternal salvation.”

The book sold
more than three million copies before it was banned by
federal authorities in 2005.

Religious ‘Cleansing’

For some analysts, this
theological interpretation is just thinly veiled religious discrimination.

For these evangelical criminals, Candomblé and Umbanda are Satan’s work, and they must be stamped out, one terreiro at a time.

parishioners, including a handful of drug kingpins who control favelas across
Rio, are heeding the call to arms. For these evangelical criminals, Candomblé
and Umbanda are Satan’s work, and they must be stamped out, one terreiro at a

Guarabu, a 38-year-old don in Rio’s Third Pure Command (TCP) gang, is an
example. Sporting a tattoo of Jesus Christ, Guarabu is known for
violently “cleansing” his
community, the Morro do Dendê favela, of practitioners of Afro-Brazilian

According to
a state hotline dedicated
to tracking religious intolerance, more than 30 terreiros were destroyed in
fewer than 20 days during September 2017, and reports of religious
discrimination have increased 119% since 2015.

Adherents of
Afro-Brazilian religions living in gang-controlled areas report personal
harassment, too. Followers are often prohibited from practicing their faith,
and people caught wearing the religious garb of Candomblé and Umbanda may be
expelled from the community.

According to
representatives of a newly launched Commission on
Combating Religious Intolerance, drug
traffickers are responsible for a sizable number of these cases.

The Prison-to-Church Pipeline

A small group of
evangelical preachers in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas may have inspired these
anti-Candomblé and Umbanda crusades, but the problem escalated in prisons.

A decade-long
war on drugs has fueled mass
incarceration. Brazil’s
overcrowded state prisons are essentially
governed by one of
two competing drug trafficking organizations with the government only nominally
in control.

Gangs have
long recruited their
rank and file from
prisons, and incarcerated members stay busy organizing trafficking and
racketeering businesses.

Faith groups,
too, have a long
tradition of working with
prisoners. The Universal Church and Seventh Day
Adventists, among others,
run programs in those same prisons ranging from drug treatment to restorative

these ministries were predominantly
Catholic. Today, of the
100 faith-based organizations subcontracted to run social programs in
prisons, 81 are
evangelical churches.

As a result,
Charismatic Christianity has spread quickly through the criminal justice
system. Jailhouse conversions are common. Evangelized inmates are frequently
housed in separate prison wings that stand out for
their order and cleanliness. Some have
even established
their own ministries inside

Life in Baixada Fluminense

For drug
kingpins, developing positive relationships with local Rio pastors while in
jail can tighten their grip on power once released.

The violent heartland of evangelical trafficking is Baixada Fluminense, a sprawl of townships in Rio’s poor northern outskirts.

traffickers control many of the city’s favelas, but the violent heartland of
evangelical trafficking is Baixada Fluminense, a sprawl of townships in Rio’s
poor northern outskirts.

Over the past
century, the area has seen waves of migration from
Brazil’s north and northeast, where Afro-Brazilian religions prosper. Baixada
Fluminense is now home to at least 253 Candomblé and Umbanda
terreiros, more than any
other municipality in the state.

The Baixada
Fluminense is also one of Rio’s most dangerous corners. Murder rates have
fallen slightly across most of the city over the past decade, but not in
Baixada Fluminense. According to the Institute for
Public Security 1.486 of a
total 4.197 reported homicides in the state so far in 2017 occurred in Baixada

Described by
locals as a “Wild West,” the area is home to famously corrupt
public officials who have
long worked with militia and
mafia groups to
intimidate their rivals. This practice – called coronelismo, or patronage – allows drug traffickers, evangelical or
otherwise, to operate with impunity.

Fighting Back

Rio de Janeiro
state officials are taking note of this worrying new strain of violence. In the
wake of attacks on Afro-Brazilian terreiros in Nova Igaçu, a municipality in
Baixada Fluminense, the Joint Commission
to Support Victims of Attacks on Religious Institutions was

alongside a newly
established task force dedicated to
tackling racial crimes and intolerance, the state commission aims to map
religious violence and resolve outstanding cases, including those involving
evangelical drug traffickers. It will also make recommendations to prevent
violence in the name of God.

People of faith
are fighting back, too. In September 2017, some 50.000 people joined
Rio’s 10th annual walk
for religious freedom, the largest
gathering since the procession’s inception. The iconic Copacabana beach was
packed with evangelicals, Catholics, Baha’i, Buddhists, Jews, Hare Krishnas and
others – all dressed in white and marching in solidarity with Afro-Brazilians.

In Brazil’s
religious diversity, there is conflict, yes – but unity, too.


This article was previously published originally by The Conversation.

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