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article imageBrazil's Candomble religion pushes back against intolerance

By Carola SOLÉ (AFP)     Sep 26, 2017 in World

When Brazilian fashion designer Rogeria Ferreira was told to remove the turban she wears as a member of the African-inspired Candomble religion for an ID picture, she decided to fight back: the turban was her identity.

"For many people, it's just a piece of cloth, or fashion," said Ferreira, 36. "But this turban represents my ancestors. If I go outside without one, I feel naked. I feel humiliated."

She had no choice last year when she was told to remove the headgear, since she urgently needed a new Rio de Janeiro identity card.

But in Candomble, the turban serves to protect the "ori," which is the head but also the person's sacred force.

So she took legal action, claiming "racial and religious prejudice," and in March had her prayers answered when the Rio state prosecutor general said that any headgear "worn for reasons of religion conviction" will now be allowed in official photographs.

That victory was just a small battle in what Candomble faithful say is growing oppression against a religion based on traditions brought by African slaves that incorporates aspects of Catholicism.

Only 0.3 percent of Brazilians identify with Candomble, according to state statistics, but it holds a rich place in Afro-Brazilian culture.

With their white clothes, music and special dances in which worshippers traditionally believe they are possessed by Candomble gods called "orixas," Candomble faithful are part of the popular imagination.

At New Year's, huge crowds of Brazilians dress in Candomble white and perform a ritual on beaches, while another Candomble festival honoring the queen of the sea Iemanja is also widely attended.

- Evangelical backlash -

But there's been a series of ugly incidents that illustrate rising intolerance against the minority religion.

In late August, a 65-year-old woman from an African-inspired faith had stones thrown at her in the Rio suburb of Nova Iguacu.

Candomble faithful celebrating the Day of the Dead at a Rio de Janeiro cemetery in 2015
Candomble faithful celebrating the Day of the Dead at a Rio de Janeiro cemetery in 2015
CHRISTOPHE SIMON, AFP

More recently, two videos emerged on social media showing apparently evangelical men forcing Candomble worshippers in Rio to destroy their sacred objects.

In early September, thousands of people from different faiths protested next to Rio's Copacabana beach against the attacks, which some blame on Brazil's ever-growing evangelical Christian community.

The Roman Catholic archbishop of Rio, Cardinal Orani, supported the Sunday march, as did representatives of Jewish, Muslim and other faiths.

"We are all equal before the law and in the eyes of the Creator," said a big placard at the protest.

Some link the darkening mood to the new mayor of Rio, Marcelo Crivella, who is also a bishop in the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, an evangelical megachurch founded by his uncle.

In the past, he has spoken harshly about gays and Catholics, and since taking office he has been seen as unfriendly to both Candomble and the city's annual carnival.

"Our country is secular, but we are returning to a time of the Inquisition," Adriano, a Candomble priest, said at the protest.

Evangelicals also took part in the march to support religious tolerance.

Attacks are done by "minorities," said Edson Garces, 30, who belongs to a Baptist church in Baixada Fluminense, a strongly evangelical area outside Rio.

But Garces said the mayor, who was elected last year, needs to show leadership.

"Although he doesn't appear as promoting this absurd intolerance, he creates a favorable atmosphere for the ignorance behind it," Garces said.

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