Urgent Letter to International Journalists and Organizations: Afro-Brazilian Religions Under Attack

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The letter below, recently circulated among international media and human rights bodies, was written by Vila Autódromo’s Heloisa Helena Costa Berto. It follows a disturbing rise in violent attacks on followers of Afro-Brazilian religions and on their religious sites across Brazil. The number of reported cases of religious intolerance in the State of Rio de Janeiro grew nearly 40% this year compared to the same period last year. Last year’s figures, however, were already a 119% increase on those reported in 2015. These data encompass cases in which Candomblé and Umbanda followers have been beaten, tortured, and even killed, and cases in which individuals have been forced to destroy their own sacred artifacts and religious centers. In the context of a growing force of conservative evangelical Christian leaders in politics across Brazil, authorities have so far failed to take effective action to protect citizens’ rights to religion, or indeed, to protect their lives and homes from attack.

Rio de Janeiro: September 30, 2017

My name is Heloísa Helena Costa Berto. I am spiritually known as Iyalorixá Luizinha de Nanã, priestess of Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian religion. I am a former resident of the favela Vila Autódromo, which was on the edge of the venue that hosted many of the Olympic Games competitions. For three years, I fought to preserve the Candomblé temple, located in the area where construction work was carried out leading to the Olympics. The sacred temple was first opened over 20 years ago. Due to the construction work preparing for the Olympics, Rio de Janeiro’s City government evicted me from the area. The sacred temple was demolished less than 24 hours after a judicial order approving the demolition was issued. During demolition procedures, the City dispatched 50 armed guards and over 20 City officials to the temple. They showed no respect, offended my religion, my orixás (sacred spirits). They said offensive words. The whole situation has brought me deep suffering.

As a priestess, I have always fought for human beings and for nature. My plight to preserve my sacred religion has led me to fight a bigger battle, with a more comprehensive perspective against racism, religious racism, and for the struggle of all of us black women. The struggle is hard because I envision that one day peace and integration between diverse beings, while embracing their differences, will be a reality. I dream about it and I fight for it to come true. Due to my plight, I became a Human Rights Frontline Defender. I was awarded the Pedro Ernesto Medal by Rio de Janeiro’s City Council and the Dandara Award by Rio de Janeiro’s State Assembly. I have also established the Abayomi NGO, which fights against social inequality and the rise of intolerance among our people.

Our issues in this country are old; however, it has been a long time since we have seen the manifestation of racism with such intensity as we are seeing now! It is an evil capable of making the whole society sick. It destroys as if it were an epidemic, it spreads like fire. The UN has paid homage to black populations by establishing the International Decade for People of African Descent. In Brazil, those are exactly the people facing deadly attacks on their culture, religion, and art.

By means of this letter, I kindly ask international bodies or even the UN itself to take action against the cases of violence, destruction, death, beatings, and torture that black people who follow Afro-Brazilian religions are facing. There have been such cases all over the country. The State of Rio de Janeiro is the leader in that ill-omened ranking. Many municipalities have been under attack. Armed men with machine guns and rifles invade religious houses and force religious leaders to break all of the objects in the houses as well as sacred artifacts. Those men beat people up or torture them with threats of severing their hands off if they do not obey. Such acts have been recorded by torturers who share the videos on social media. Such a fact spreads panic to all. There are photos and videos showing proof of the actions I am exposing.

The fact that proves it as an act of racism and terrorism is that such actions are only targeted at Afro-Brazilian religions. The torturers themselves, while torturing people, offend them with curse words derogatory to their religion: “witch,” “sorceress,” “witch doctor.” The aggressors justify their actions on the grounds of their love for Christ. They show and spread hate towards our religion and to everything related to black tradition. The number of followers in Neo-Pentecostal churches has seen steady growth. Some universities have already been studying, in master’s and doctorate programs, the violence and the attempted genocide against our religion.

I kindly ask international bodies to influence Brazilian authorities to take effective and efficient actions. Unfortunately, we are a part of the population that is socially discarded by the powerful minority. We can no longer be exterminated, victims to a genocide that stems from racism while people in other countries do not hear our voice. We have been living in pain, isolated from the so-called celebrations of a decade meant to honor us black people. I do not know if I will survive this decade. I do not know if my faith brothers and sisters will survive this decade of Brazilian religious terrorism. What I do know is that, in spite of the suffering, the anguish of maybe becoming the next victim, the pain and sadness for the many that have already passed away, I keep fighting and asking for help from people who, just like me, also pursue peace among religions.

Heloísa Helena Costa Berto