African Religion Under Fire In Brazil

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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Rosa Cardoso has practiced the Afro-Brazilian religion of Umbanda almost all of her 89 years, yet she hasn’t stopped hiding her faith from the rest of the world.

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The door to the temple she runs in a middle-class neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro sits behind a plain, dilapidated door and has no sign out front announcing its presence. Inside, worshippers pay homage to images of African-descended gods, the Orixas, but the figures are stored discreetly behind a wooden lattice beneath an altar adorned with a nearly life-sized image of Jesus flanked by St. Barbara and the Virgin Mary.

Although an estimated 400,000 Brazilians such as Cardoso follow the religion, they also continue to face prejudices that clash with the country’s public image of racial and religious harmony.

Intolerance and outright hostility against Umbanda, as well as Brazil’s other major African-descended religion Candomble, have recently returned to the spotlight as religious-freedom activists denounce the demolition of a house known as Umbanda’s birthplace.

At the same time, the owner of another Umbanda temple in the same city, Sao Goncalo, across the bay from Rio, is fighting an eminent domain order to turn his house into a sports center.

Cardoso said she’s learned not to let down her guard when it comes to protecting herself from religious scorn. This country of 190 million remains predominantly Roman Catholic, even as Pentecostal congregations have won over legions of converts.

Many in Rio can rattle off the names of a few Orixas, and thousands of believers and sympathizers flock to beaches on New Year’s dressed in white to leave offerings for the ocean goddess Iemanja.

Nonetheless, many Brazilians often view Umbanda and Candomble as barely benign versions of witchcraft, and believers are loath to acknowledge publicly they follow the faiths. In many parts of the country, practicing Umbanda was outlawed until the 1950s, and in the following three decades believers were supposed to register with the police.

“We used to have to hide in the woods to do our ceremonies,” Cardoso said one night, as an Umbanda ceremony full of drums, dancing and bodily possessions got under way. Even now, Cardoso doesn’t open her house to strangers without a thorough vetting.

Umbanda was founded a little more than a century ago, drawing from older traditions such as Catholicism, the beliefs of enslaved Yoruba people brought from West Africa, the spirituality of Brazil’s indigenous groups and the teachings of 19th century French spiritualist Allan Kardec.

The religion has many variations, but all share belief in a supreme being, Oxala, and in a pantheon of other African-origin deities, many of whom are identified with a Catholic saint and with natural forces or elements. They also believe these deities, along with other spirits, can enter the body of psychics to advise and interact with the living.

A city survey in 2011 found 847 Umbanda houses of worship in Rio, though like Cardoso’s they’re often not easy to spot.

On a recent night at Cardoso’s house, a young woman in a long white dress stepped into a six-pointed star painted in the center of the room, calm despite the fast-beating drums, the chanting and the thick incense smoke around her.

Suddenly, she crumpled to the floor. When she stood up again, she had the deeply bowed back of the very old. Her fingers and toes curled as with arthritis, and her face was drawn, mouth puckered, eyes squinting. Her voice cracked as she shuffled around the room, blessing each of the ceremony’s participants.

It was the beginning of the night of the “pretos velhos,” or the old black men. Soon, all the “sons” and “daughters” of the house were incorporating, according to their belief, the spirits of wise old black ancestors, and later offering one-on-one advice to the dozens of followers attending the ceremony.

Brazil’s post-dictatorship 1989 constitution enshrined the freedom to hold such ceremonies, but Umbanda’s followers say official disdain and intense prejudice still put their lives and shrines at risk.

According to police reports, followers of Afro-Brazilian religions report on average 100 cases of physical or verbal attacks a year because of their faith, in the state of Rio de Janeiro alone.

Another report, which was submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Council by a Brazilian religious-freedom group, details 39 cases of discrimination around the country in 2009. Cases range from a bank’s refusal in Minas Gerais state to give an Afro-Brazilian religious association an account to the partial destruction of a Candomble temple in Bahia state. The two cases, from 2008, are still being investigated.

“Umbanda has suffered a lot of pressure from other religions, as well as from the state and from police,” said Fernando Altemeyer, a theologian at the Catholic University of Sao Paulo. “It has these elements from Catholicism, but isn’t Catholic; from spiritualism, without following exactly Kardec’s beliefs. So no one recognizes it as their own.”

Cases of persecution against Umbanda and Candomble have increased along with the presence and the power of Pentecostal religions, Altemeyer said.

“There is always a discourse of ‘taking them from the hands of the devil,’ converting them,” Altemeyer said. “Evangelical actions on this front are very significant.”

Such tensions have come into relief in Sao Goncalo, where Mayor Aparecida Panniset, an outspoken Pentecostal, has been accused of failing to protect Umbanda sites, or even destroying them.

In October, she ignored pleas by religious tolerance activists to stop the demolition of the house where the first Umbanda rituals were held in 1908. She also turned down requests to meet the activists, they said.

Panniset then moved ahead with efforts to raze another traditional Umbanda house in the same city. Tractors have started to level the land and a fence was built around the property with signs announcing a sports center’s arrival, although Sao Goncalo has not been granted rights to build it and the case is pending in court.

The mayor didn’t respond to several calls and emails from The Associated Press requesting comment. Documents filed in court by the city do not mention a temple on the land, or the owners’ home. Instead it refers to unspecified buildings “in poor state of preservation” and “illegal occupations,” and says the area has little value as real estate. Owner Cristiano Ramos said no city officials ever inspected the property.

“Ever since slavery, we’ve been used to taking beatings and keeping quiet to survive,” Ramos said. “But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to resist. We’ve been here all these centuries, and we’re going to continue.”

Ramos inherited the house from his father, also an Umbanda priest who in 1947 incorporated the spirit of an indigenous deity, the Indian with a Golden Feather, that gives the 40-year-old temple its name.

The Commission Against Religious Intolerance, a Rio-based nonprofit, is still fighting to build a museum of Umbanda on the site of the religion’s first house of worship. The Sao Goncalo city council announced Thursday it will seek to declare the property a protected historical site and will examine the plan to build a museum on the spot.

“Building the museum is one way to repair and minimize the damage done in October, when the house that was the birthplace of Umbanda was torn down,” said council member Amarildo Aguiar in a statement.

Ramos said he wants to see the museum built, but at the same time, he said Umbanda should remain a living faith. And he said that means protecting the houses where this most Brazilian of faiths lives on.

“I’m not ready to turn into an exhibit,” Ramos said. “My house is an active house. We’ve been here, living in our faith with our Orixas, and respecting others. We’re going to ask for that respect back.”

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