Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Two Steps forward for Afro-Brazilian Religions

Umbanda Altar with elements from
Catholicism, African traditions, and Masonry.
Just recently, the Hedge Mason reported on the murders of several Afro-Brazilian Religious leaders by a deranged neighbor inspired by radical evangelical teachings which often target Afro-Brazilian religions in particular calling them devil worship or satanism, neither of which they are. Several other well publicized attacks on religious centers, Templos, Teirreros, and Tendas have occurred throughout Brazil in recent years, and public statues representing the Orixás, or entities of various Afro-Brazilian faiths have been defaced. These statues are public art, because apart from the role of these spirits in the African religions of Brazil, they also figure prominently in Brazilian folklore and tradition.

Additionally, not so long ago there was a dispute in the school system of one of Brazil's major cities, when a teacher was prohibited by her principle, who is an evangelist, from reading folktales to her grade school students in class because the characters in one of the stories included Exú, another Orixá or African spirit. To contextualize this for a North American audience, this would be like banning a teacher from reading Brer Rabbit, because the stories in Brer Rabbit closely resemble stories associated with one or another of the African deities. Not only that, but so little respect was given to African religions in recent years that the building which is widely acclaimed as the location where modern Umbanda, which prides itself as the only "totally Brazilian religion" was demolished before efforts to assure its protection were successful.

Candomblé ritual in Bahia
Fortunately, not all news is bad. I am reporting today on two events that provide some hope that the Brazilian government, which presides over a nation with the second largest Black population in the world, second only to Nigeria in West Africa, has the will to protect the cultural integrity of such a large portion of its population, many of whom claim loyalty to both African religious traditions and Christianity simultaneously.

The first is to note that Umbanda now has official status as a part of Brazilian cultural heritage. Approved last Wednesday (Aug. 21) by the Metropolitan Council of the City of São Paulo, Bill 254/2010 declares Umbanda as intangible cultural heritage of the city of São Paulo.
The bill, authored by Councilman Quito Ant - PR, also was supported by the efforts of the Police also parliamentary Neto - PSD, who quickly understood the importance of the cause and helped to be discussed and approved. São Paulo is one of Latin America's Mega Cities with an amazing recognized 111 different ethnic groups and a population of at least 11 million people, making it the largest city in the Portuguese speaking world.

Birthplace of Umbanda in Rio de Janeiro
For many decades after the abolition of slavery in Brazil, the police and military authorities routinely would raid the religious centers of African derived and influenced religions, including Umbanda which grew out of older traditions. Laws on the books, both nationally, and in local areas prohibited Afro-Brazilian religions of any sort, condemning and banning them as sorcery and quite ironically, black magic. It was not uncommon to see photographs of confiscated religious objects, relics, and the drums which were necessary for ritual performance, accompanying newspaper articles on "successful suppression of evil cults." Until the second half of the 20th Century, despite the religious freedom assured by the first Brazilian Republican Constitution in 1891, the Criminal Law of 1890, which forbade the prace of Spiritism, witchcraft, and its sortileges, was never overturned. In fact it was used to justify periodic efforts to eradicate African derived religious traditions throughout Brazil.

Police confiscations of religious objects in
the first half of the 20th Century
While persecution was reversed during the second half of the 20th century, when between 1950 - 1970, what might be called a "Golden Era" for Umbanda occurred. The religion had thousands of adepts and famous writers on the religion, such as  WW da Mata e Silva, Tancredo Pinto da Silva, amond others offered the views and opinions in daily and weekly articles in the mainstream media, and the now defunct TV TUPI regularly hosted shows with figures such as Chico Xavier, which had extremely large audiences, it was not to always remain that way. In recent decades, from the 1990s on, American imported Evangelical and neo-Pentecostal  Christianity has become hostile and literally violent in its opposition to African derived Afro-Brazilian religions, culminating most recently in the cold blooded murder of a priestess and members of her family, including a young child.

So, it is good to note  that in addition to the recognition granted by the City of São Paulo, a new religious anti-discrimination law has not only been approved, but has been put into service.

A pastor in Rio de Janeiro was arrested on charges of discrimination against both Umbanda and Candomblé, the two most widely practiced of Afro-Brazilian religions. The temporary detention was ordered by the 20th Criminal Court of Rio for inciting a murder of religious intolerance, based on Article 20 of the Law Caó - which makes it a crime  without the availability of bail of religious discrimination. He was arrested along with another member of his church, a 25 year old man named Henrique Afonso Alves Lobato.

Umbanda Temple in the 1970s
The arrest was made by order of delegate Hellen Rosemberg, who sent the police to surround the Church of Jesus Christ during the course of a service. When the service ended, the two evangelicals were arrested. According to press reports, Pastor Tupirani, 43, and Lobato are accused of inciting prejudice against african-Brazilian religions and publicly attacking the police and the armed forces. The arrest was made based on a video Afonso posted on the Internet, where according to the press he makes statements like "the spiritual centers are places of invocation of the devil" and "all the Pae de Santos (priests) are gay", "the Bible says ( ...) the worship of pictures and sculptures are an abomination, then I repudiate those images too ". "Every spiritual center is a place of invocation of the devil," Lobato said in the video. In addition, he comments on the police: "Those police officers think they are an authority, but I answer to the church and not to  legal authority." O Globo News Network noted that Tupirani had also posted on the Internet a video in which he states that does not recognize human laws, but only the Bible.

The Pae de Santo or Umbanda priest victimized by these evangelicals noted that "this kind of attitude is a threat to democratic principles of government. He is also a member of the Commission for Combating Religious Intolerance. If convicted, the pastor and his follower may be sentenced to between 2 and 5 years in jail and pay a fine. They may also be subject to civil action by the victims of their crimes.

Contemporary Umbanda Altar or "Conga" 
The report of the Secretariat for the Promotion of Racial Equality  states that there is an effective "religious war" being promoted by neo-Pentecostals in Brazil, documentation pointing toward to "Universal Church of the Kingdom of God" as a propagator of religious intolerance in the country, urging the persecution, disrespect and "demonization", especially of Umbanda and Candomblé.

The report, submitted to the UN, accused the UCJG Brazilian Evangelic churches of a racist inspired preaching against the practices and Umbanda and Candomblé.  The UN is investigating the allegations. 

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