Nova Iguaçu’s Catholic Church Organizes Meeting On Overcoming Violence

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Overcoming violence is the theme of the 2018 Fraternity Campaign, launched in Rio de Janeiro on February 17 at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Sebastian. The campaign, first created in 1964 by the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil, is an evangelizing activity of the Catholic Church with strong links to Liberation Theology, a theological and political current born in Latin America based on the premise that the bible demands Christians take on commitments to the poor and to reducing inequality. The campaign is commonly seen as the application of this theory to concrete problems on Earth. It therefore contains a strong element of social transformation, taking the shape of a campaign to help people accomplish such commitments, with the goal of promoting a series of reforms inside the Church and how they can have an effect on society’s transformations. Therefore, starting from the theme of overcoming violence, the campaign’s foundational text problematizes the many shapes violence takes on and offers concrete recommendations for how to overcome it.

On February 3, the Diocese of Nova Iguaçu in Greater Rio de Janeiro organized a training meeting to prepare for the campaign’s launch, in which all of Rio’s dioceses took part. Invited to lead the training were the former state representative and the state of Rio’s current Regional Superintendent of Work and Employment, Robson Leite, the federal representative Alessandro Molon, and educator and sociologist Tobias Tomine Farias. The discussion was representative of the Catholic Church in the exercise of its social role as conceived in Brazil, in particular in a territory marked by violence such as the Baixada Fluminense.

The meeting’s methodology was based on an observation and analysis tool directly derived from Liberation Theology to make sure that the discussion and training were grounded in principles of social justice. This tool consists of the See, Judge, and Act Method: get to know the situation and concrete problem (“See”), examine this reality in light of the Catholic Church’s doctrine (“Judge”), and, finally, act according to the circumstances of time and place, such that the victims of the processes of exclusion take their place in history into their hands and, thus, recognize themselves and are recognized as leaders (“Act”).

Robson Leite, starting the “See” method phase, outlined a few of the most perverse kinds of violence in society, especially violence against women and regarding religious intolerance. “In Rio Grande do Sul, there is a pioneer experience in which female police officers visit the houses of victims—mainly of domestic violence—not only to advance the investigations but to comfort them in such a delicate situation. We live in a country that criminalizes the victim,” explained Leite. He also shared revealing data about episodes of religious intolerance. According to the Human Rights Special Secretariat of the Presidency of the Republic, in the period between 2011 and 2015, 697 reports of attacks and other kinds of violations towards religious people, especially religions of African origin like Umbanda and Candomblé, were investigated.

It is particularly symbolic that this debate happened in Nova Iguaçu, in the Baixada Fluminense, a region that has extremely high indices of violence against women and violence based on religious intolerance. In 2015, women that were victims of physical abuse represented the second largest group of patients attended to at Posse Hospital in Nova Iguaçu, second only to victims of traffic accidents. Furthermore, 2017 witnessed a 40% increase in incidents of religious intolerance in the municipality. The municipality has more than 253 registered centers linked to religions of African origin—the largest number in the Baixada region—with at least seven cases of vandalized terreiros, or sacred sites, and even one assault on an elderly resident.

Next, it was sociologist Tobias Tomine’s turn to apply the “Judge” method phase. He used the conflicting relations present inside the Church itself as a basis for the discussion, more specifically focusing on the political-ideological positioning of the faithful, stuck in a dichotomy of progressives versus conservatives. He argued that perceiving these positions as a perfect dichotomy threatens our ability to comprehend the complexities of an entire society. Tomine looked to the writings of Pope Benedict XVI from his 2009 “Message for the 42nd International Day of Peace” to find words that justified the fight for social justice: the Pope says in the message that “’you cannot overcome violence without attention to the poor and without fighting poverty.’ Poverty is among the most common factors that support and aggravate conflict, even armed conflict. The latter feeds tragic situations of poverty,” said Tomine.

Then federal representative Alessandro Molon addressed the “Act” method phase from three angles. The first was the “family,” but instead of praising only the traditional model of a nuclear family as usually expected of religious people, the congressman focused his speech on ways of protecting all family configurations. “We must protect our families from hate speech. No one is born violent, as Nelson Mandela would say. If they learn how to hate, they need to learn how to love. We must also protect our families from job insecurity. Nowadays a father and a mother, to support a household, will have to work almost 18 hours a day. Keeping the children away from parents is a way of ruining families.”

As for the second angle—“community”—referring indirectly to the recent cases of violence in the country, Molon said it is necessary to create methodologies to rehabilitate those who made a mistake. “Sentences in Brazil are just imprisonment. We need laws to reduce the burden on the penitentiary system, laws that reduce the number of crimes that require prison sentences. Just to give you an idea, our criminal legislation protects goods and property more than human life. Someone who fakes pharmaceutical medicine can get a longer sentence than someone who committed murder,” said the representative. Finally, about “society,” Molon stated that one of the solutions to violence is disarmament. “Contrary to what people think, the biggest cause of death is not organized crime or rifles. The most common cases of homicide, making up one in every three murders by firearm, are cases that involve bar fights, jealousy, frivolous reasons. Studies prove that a 1% reduction of the volume of firearms in the streets will lead to a 2% reduction in the number of homicides,” the congressman claimed.

Therefore, far from over-simplifying, the violence discussed in the campaign’s document takes concrete dimensions and deserves to be observed in all its complexity. Eight types of violence and some of their implications are cited in almost 20 pages. There are writings about police violence, but also about the inequality and inequity of the court system, as well as the criminal system itself, marking the campaign as an opposition to the historical context of conservatism that currently permeates the speech of representatives in congress and authorities across the most varied spheres of power in the country.

An interview with two priests from the Baixada Fluminense conducted by the Fórum Grita Baixada at the end of January reinforced this impression. The priests Elias da Conceição, from Queimados, and Jacques Kwangala, from Engenheiro Pedreira, observe that the main type of violence to be fought is institutional. “It’s not just about an explicit violence, like the one that goes on at a shooting, for example. It’s not just a stray bullet that takes away the life of a person or makes them incapacitated. Society needs to be alert. What worries us, besides that, are the subtle types of violence, because many times they even have legal defense, but they are not just,” says priest Elias da Conceição.

Priest Jacques Kwangala spoke on other issues that relate to structural violence. “We have to be alert to issues such as racism, economics, and party politics. Regarding racism, the Church has demonstrated various ways to struggle, like by building the Pastoral Afro, with connections to Afro-Brazilian culture. We have to highlight the work of many social pastoral programs that support a variety of claims like inclusive education, public policies, that is, how they act to promote justice as a whole,” says priest Kwanagala. See the full interview below:

This article was written by Fabio Leon and produced by a partnership between RioOnWatch and Fórum Grita Baixada. Fabio Leon is a journalist and human rights activist who works as communications officer for Fórum Grita Baixada. Fórum Grita Baixada is a forum of people and organizations working in and around the Baixada Fluminense, focusing on developing strategies and initiatives in the area of public security, which is considered a necessary requirement for citizenship and realizing the right to the city. Follow the Forum Grita Baixada on Facebook here.