National Day to Combat Religious Intolerance: challenges to tackle violence against Afro-Brazilian religions

Challenges to combat religious intolerance and religious racism in Brazil, marked by the plurality of beliefs

Celebração do dia de Iemanjá na praia do Rio Vermelho em Salvador, Bahia, em 2 de fevereiro de 2019. (Foto de Lucio TAVORA / AFP) Celebração do dia de Iemanjá na praia do Rio Vermelho em Salvador, Bahia, em 2 de fevereiro de 2019. (Foto de Lucio TAVORA / AFP)

Since 2007, the date of January 21 has marked the National Day to Combat Religious Intolerance, to remind us of the need to respect religious freedom, a fundamental principle guaranteed by Article 5 of the Brazilian Constitution. 

Attacks against faith primarily affect African-based religions. This is because there is one element that underpins relationships in Brazil: racism. In this regard, religious leaders and experts on the subject believe that the term “religious intolerance” is insufficient to describe the violence suffered by people who worship orisha deities and other religious groups that do not fit within the Western imaginary. Instead, they prefer the term “religious racism” to name a practice that for centuries has threatened the existence and freedom of people who worship at terreiro temples. 

Conectas explains below how the Day to Combat Religious Intolerance and the relationship with racism came about: 

What is the National Day to Combat Religious Intolerance?

Established by Law No. 11,635/2007, the National Day to Combat Religious Intolerance was created from a story of violence. Without authorization, a photo of the priestess Gildásia dos Santos e Santos, known as Mother Gilda of Ogum, was used in an article published in the newspaper Folha Universal rebuking the work of leaders of the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé religion. The association of her image with hate speech prompted health complications that led to her death. 

Mother Gilda of Ogum founded the Candomblé temple called Ilê Axé Abassá de Ogum in 1988, located near lake Abaeté in the Itapuã neighborhood of Salvador. Her case was the first to be recognized in Brazil as religious intolerance with the right to compensation for material and moral damages. 

In Brazil, the right to freedom of religion or belief is provided for in Article 5 of the Constitution, which states that “freedom of conscience and belief is inviolable, assuring free exercise of religious beliefs and guaranteeing, as set forth in law, protection of places of worship and their religious services”. Furthermore, the practice of discrimination or prejudice against religions is a crime that carries a prison sentence of 1 to 3 years plus a fine.

It is also worth noting that the Constitution defines Brazil as a secular State (with no official religion), meaning it cannot grant privileges to any one religion to the detriment of another, and it must ensure equal treatment to its citizens, regardless of their beliefs.

What is the difference between religious racism and religious intolerance?

It is necessary to go beyond the term “intolerance” to define violence targeted directly at African-based religions in Brazil. The term religious racism more accurately describes the threat to freedom and existence that people who worship at terreiro temples have been suffering for centuries. In other words, hate speech and physical attacks happen precisely because these religions are practiced by black people. The handbook “Terreiro Temples in Struggle: ways to tackle religious racism”, published by the NGO Criola, states that “religious racism is a series of violent practices that constitute discrimination and hatred for African-based religions and their adherents, as well as for sacred Afro-Brazilian sites, traditions and cultures”.

“The expression ‘religious racism’ came out of the United Nations system in the 1960s and it has acquired legal content and volatile meaning over the decades,” explained the lawyer Hédio Silva, executive coordinator of the Institute for the Defense of Afro-Brazilian Religions (Idafro), in an event on the topic organized by the organizations Criola, Conectas and Portal Catarinas. “I considered ‘religious intolerance’ insufficient when I realized that religiosity is just one target of these attacks, perhaps the most visible, but in reality the attacks are aimed at the whole cultural heritage and the whole civilizational legacy inherited from the transatlantic slave trade,” he added. 

Religious racism: challenges for society

Data from the “Disque 100” (Dial 100) human rights hotline, of the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights, reveal an increase in the number of cases. According to the 2nd Report on Religious Intolerance: Brazil, Latin America and the Caribbean, organized by the Center for Coordination of Marginalized Populations and the Religious Freedoms Observatory, with the support of the Office of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Brazil (2023), there were 477 cases of religious intolerance in 2019, 353 cases in 2020 and 966 cases in 2021.

In a survey carried out by the news agency Agência Brasil, in the first quarter of 2023, the São Paulo state civil police recorded 181 cases of religious intolerance in the state, representing 87.4% of all the incidents reported between January 2019 and March 2023 – yet another indication of the significant increase over the years.

“We believe it is a collective duty to create safe environments, where all people can practice their faith, without any type of discrimination or persecution. As such, it is also important to hold to account people and institutions that spread hate and intolerance and demand concrete public policies from the State to tackle religious racism,” said Maryuri Grisales, an advisor for the Strengthening Democratic Space program at Conectas.

She points out that cases like Mother Gilda’s are not a thing of the past. “There are still many situations in which people who practice African-based religions are attacked or discriminated against on public transport, schools or in the workplace,” she said. Recently, a law student from Salvador was attacked in the subway by a man who was bothered because his beads were visible. It is also worth noting that in 2023 a law was passed that equates the crime of racial contempt with the crime of racism. The new law bans the use of violence against religious acts and practices. Another case that had national repercussions was the murder of Mother Bernadette. She was killed in the Pitanga dos Palmares quilombo settlement, in the municipality of Simões Filho, in the metropolitan region of Salvador. The crime involved several political and religious motivations, all linked to racism.

What can you do if you suffer or witness an act of religious intolerance or religious racism?

All victims of religious racism or religious intolerance can make a complaint using “Disque 100” (Dial 100), the federal government’s human rights reporting hotline. It is also advisable to use channels such as each state’s Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, the Racism and Crimes of Intolerance Police Stations (existing in some states), in addition to the Public Defender’s Office and the Public Prosecutor’s Office.

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