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Thousands march in Rio against religious intolerance

/ 08:41 AM September 19, 2011

RIO DE JANEIRO—Tens of thousands marched at the world famous Copacabana beach on Sunday in a protest against the persecution of Afro-Brazilian religious groups amid growing Christian evangelical influence.

Afro-Brazilian religious leaders were joined by Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Protestants, Buddhists and Baha’is, dressed in the traditional garb of their faiths, aiming to draw attention to intolerance.

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“Our movement is not religious, it does not promote any faith, just the right to be respected. Religious intolerance is the open door to fascism,” said Ivan Dos Santos, an organizer of the march.

The drumbeat of Candomble — a religion introduced in Brazil in the 16th century by west African slaves — resounded on the beach not far from where Hare Krishna devotees danced in a circle.

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A Candomble priest, or “babalawô,” Dos Santos said he wanted to gain the world’s attention.

“Religion is a cause of war in the world, but here we are bringing the religions together to dialogue because religious intolerance generates racism and threatens democracy,” he said.

Another aim of the march, which organisers said attracted 180,000 people, was to “isolate” Christian evangelical churches, while showing that Brazilians of all religions can live together, he said.

“For 25 years, they have hit us over the head with the Bible. In school, our children are treated like followers of the devil,” dos Santos told AFP.

Police did not confirm the estimated numbers of demonstrators.

Evangelical churches have flourished among the poor in this giant South American country, where more than 80 million people — 45 percent of the population — are black or of mixed race.

But Jose Flavio Pessoa de Barros, an anthropologist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, charged that they “demonize cults of African origin to recruit followers.”

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Followers of Candomble and Umbanda, another Afro-Brazilian religion, have held annual marches against religious intolerance since 2008, after several places of Afro-Brazilian worship were sacked and their leaders attacked.

Along the way other faiths have joined the marches.

More than 500 representatives of the Baha’i faith, which is persecuted in Iran, are taking part in this year’s march, said Roberto Iradj, a Baha’i representative in Brazil.

“Any type of discrimination that does not affect us today can affect us tomorrow. That’s why I am here,” said Paulo Maltz, a Jewish lawyer.

Organizers of the Copacabana march say that intolerance of African-based religions has increased as the evangelical churches have spread.

The main evangelical church, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, owns radio and television stations and has an influential political party.

“Our goal is to have 70 million followers by 2012,” pastor Washington de Souza, of the Unified Evangelical Center in Rio, told AFP recently.

Nevertheless, the most recent official census shows that the number of Evangelical Christians has stagnated, Catholics are declining in number and more people say they have no religion.

Sociologist Muniz Sodre says Brazilian society is multiracial, diverse and cannot be taken over by a single belief system.

“The evangelists deny a great section of Brazilian culture. Indeed, they are racist,” said Gisele Cossard, a French sociologist who has been based in Brazil for 40 years and is a Candomble priestess.

Religious syncretism is ever present in Brazil. After attending Christmas Mass, millions of Brazilians dress in white on December 31 to make offerings to Yemanja, the goddess of the sea in the Candomble religion. Many believe in spirits, reincarnation and various superstitions.

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TAGS: Brazil, Protests, Religion, South America
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