What is religious racism and how does it affect the black population

Understand why the term “religious racism” is more appropriate than “religious intolerance” to describe the violence suffered by people who worship at terreiro temples

Hundreds of believers participate in the traditional event Hundreds of believers participate in the traditional event "Lavagem das Escadarias Bonfim" in the city of Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, on January 11, 2018. The celebration is a symbolic washing of the stairs of Bonfim Church by practitioners of Catholicism and Afro-Brazilian religions.

According to some African conceptions, words are governed by the fire element. They can both burn and heat up. This is why human rights defenders and activists associated with the black movement recognize the importance of reflecting on words and expressions that have been largely absorbed by the common understanding. 

In Brazil, a country structured by racism, 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. We need to look for another expression that can describe this type of violence in a way that leaves no doubt about who is being targeted. In this regard, the term “religious racism” seems more appropriate to define a practice that for centuries has threatened the freedom and existence of people who worship at terreiro temples.

According to the definition in the handbook Terreiros em Luta, 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.

“It is right to address this violence but what we have in terms of legislation and public policies is insufficient,” said Lúcia Xavier, coordinator of the NGO Criola, at the cycle of debates organized by Criola, Conectas and Portal Catarinas. “It can be said that, from the time the first enslaved person arrived in Brazil until today, this violence has not stopped. It takes on diminished proportions in certain times of greater democratic openness in society, but over time these people have always been criminalized.”

The lawyer Hédio Silva, executive coordinator of the Institute for the Defense of Afro-Brazilian Religions (Idafro), is also committed to reflecting on the importance of the use of adequate language. “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,” he explained, also during the cycle of debates. “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.”

Silva cites as an example the successive attempts to erase this legacy, such as the use of expressions such as “Jesus croquettes”, instead of Acarajé, and “capoeira gospel”. “These examples require no comment. People never say Jesus yakisoba, pasta or kibbeh, it’s a permanent antagonism that creates an antithesis to everything associated with the African civilizational legacy,” he said. 

Maryuri Grisales, advisor for the Strengthening Democratic Space program at Conectas, explains why that Brazilian civil society should also mobilize to combat religious racism. “It is a matter that is directly linked to the country’s structural racism. This is not a secondary problem. Strengthening democracy necessarily includes ending violence against people who worship at terreiros.”

According to Rafael Soares, Planning and Cooperation Secretary at KOINONIA, “as far as academia is concerned, Afro-religions are a subchapter of anthropology. It has only been in the last six or seven years that lawyers, sociologists and historians have started talking about the term ‘religious intolerance’,” he said, pointing out how slowly academia has taken notice of the claims of social movements. 

The suppression of certain demands of the black movement also occurs in other ways in academia. Felipe Brito, founder and general director of the Jeholu Cultural Occupation, says the restriction of the African legacy solely to the field of spirituality is one of them. “I have thought about how the white Eurocentric academic process has tried to undermine the political space of our traditions. We have ended up in the sole and exclusive space of religiosity, of faith,” he said. 

According to African conceptions, there is no separation between the spiritual and the political. “It is important to note that these pillars put up as a standard of customs by the conservative wing of the extreme right in Brazil exist, coexist and survive in African-based communities,” explained Brito, namely the participation of the LGBTQIA+ population, including trans men and women and transvestites who are not only welcomed but are active and play a significant role in these communities.

On the importance of discussing religious racism as a perverse aspect of Brazil’s racist structure, Rafael Soares, of KOINONIA, brought up the story of the orisha spirit Oshosi. “He is a hunter, who can see in the woods what no one else can see. He can find his way in the fog. That’s exactly what we do when we affirm this concept,” he said. “May the lord of mysteries publicly evoke, determine and affirm that there can be no democracy without a conversation about religious racism.”

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