SALVADOR, Brazil, Jan 8 (IPS) – Millions of Brazilians usher in the new year by wading into the sea, dressed in white, scattering flowers on the water as an offering to the Afro-Brazilian deity Iemanjá, in return for her blessings for the year to come. But few of them realise that this tradition is rooted in a religion fighting for survival in the face of prejudice, racism and intolerance.

Mae Jaciara prepares typical Candomblé meal

Mae Jaciara prepares typical Candomblé meal

Jaciara Ribeiro dos Santos symbolises the counterattack launched by practitioners of Candomblé and other African-based religions, which have survived centuries of repression only to confront a new wave of attacks by fundamentalist Protestant churches.

Jaciara’s mother, Gildasia dos Santos, was better known as Mae Gilda (Mother Gilda) in her role as a “ialorixá” or Candomblé priestess. She lived in Salvador, capital of the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia, home to the country’s largest population of African descendants.

In September 1999, Mae Gilda saw her photograph printed in the Folha Universal, a daily newspaper published by the “neo-Pentecostal” Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, under a headline accusing her of being a “charlatan” and of endangering the “lives and wallets” of her followers.

Jaciara is convinced that her mother’s death by a heart attack several months later, at the age of 65, was a direct result of the psychological trauma caused by the slanderous attack.

The case drew widespread publicity, and January 21, the date of Mae Gilda’s death, was designated as the National Day Against Religious Intolerance, through a presidential decree adopted two years ago.

This year the date will be marked with a “march for peace” in the Salvador neighbourhood of Itapuã, where Mae Gilda lived. The march is being organised by Jaciara, now 42 and a ialorixá in her own right.

As well as a call for respect for Afro-Brazilian religions, the event will also be a celebration of the legal victory against the Universal Church: after a nine-year court battle, the church and its newspaper have been forced to issue a retraction and to pay Mae Gilda’s family 145,250 reais (63,000 dollars) as compensation for moral damages.

For Jaciara, the legal victory represents “historic reparation for the Candomblé people.” While the monetary amount of the compensation is relatively small, given the considerable economic clout of the Universal Church, which has its own television network, the public retraction it has been forced to make will have a major impact nationwide.

Moreover, the process as a whole has marked a “watershed” for Candomblé, she told IPS, given its role in mobilising Afro-Brazilian religions to strengthen and expand, while fighting for the freedom of worship guaranteed in the country’s constitution.

Practitioners can no longer remain “closed up in their temples, but must take to the streets” to engage with the public at large and play an active role in politics, “the only means to obtain favourable laws,” she said.

“Candomblé will be in danger of extinction if we do not act on the political, economic and cultural fronts,” she declared.

For instance, Candomblé has been officially recognised as a religion since 1969, which means that places of worship should be exempt from taxes. But because many of the ialorixás or babalorixás (male priests) who run them do not possess title deeds, particularly in the case of makeshift temples in extremely poor neighbourhoods, they are forced to pay municipal taxes, and in some cases, their temples are even torn down.

Jaciara also lamented the fact that many famous Brazilian musicians and carnival groups, especially those from Bahia, “drank from the source of Candomblé and made a lot of money because of it,” but have never lent their support to Afro-Brazilian religions or helped defend them from attack.

Marta do Rosario, or Mae Marta, the priestess of a temple in the same Salvador neighbourhood, has organised workshops to teach traditional embroidery techniques and Afro-Brazilian dance. The participants have included members of evangelical Protestant churches who formerly feared the temple as “the home of the devil.”

She is aided in her community outreach work by her son Cesar do Rosario, who is a master of capoeira, a blend of dance and martial arts developed by African slaves in Brazil and now known throughout the world.

Although Mae Marta, 60, says that “Candomblé and capoeira share the same roots and run in the blood” of Afro-Brazilians, she initially opposed her son’s decision to devote himself to capoeira at the age of 13. She considered it a waste of time, a pursuit with no future, and dragged him out of training sessions to study, “because Candomblé also needs doctors, lawyers and professors,” she told IPS.

Today Cesar has a capoiera field next to his mother’s temple, which he has christened Cativeiro (Captivity) to commemorate the oppression of his people “for reasons of social class, more than race.” Here he teaches capoeira to 65 poor boys and girls.

It is an activity which is “played with the mind, not the legs,” he says, stressing that it is crucial to encourage discipline and sound principles, since capoeira is potentially a weapon that could be used for criminal purposes.

The “magical power” of capoiera and associated musical genres like samba has earned it a presence in “90 percent of the schools in Salvador,” through regular classes or performances, he added.

The reaffirmation of the Candomblé religion has the support of the Koinonía Ecumenical Fellowship and Service Agency, a non-governmental organisation that offers legal assistance and promotes ties of solidarity among temples. It works with 150 of the estimated 3,000 temples in Salvador.

Koinonía also supports a Candomblé youth organisation called Obabyan, which means “power for the new” in the Yoruba language. The organisation is aimed at the renewal and future development of a religion that was forced to lead a very closed existence in order to survive the repression of the past, explained Augusto de Arruda, one of the group’s founders.

Currently studying to be a teacher, Arruda is originally from the southern Brazilian state of São Paulo and comes from a long line of Candomblé practitioners. He believes that religious intolerance is felt more strongly in Bahia because of the stronger local presence of Candomblé, reflected in the large number of people dressed in white on Fridays.

Fellow Obabyan member Ricardo de Andrade comes from a very different background, as a former member of the Universal Church. He came into contact with Candomblé though the Afro-Brazilian movement, and said he felt “betrayed” when he entered a temple for the first time and saw that it was nothing like what he was led to believe by the “lies” of his neo-Pentecostal pastors.

Arruda and Andrade have suffered insults on the streets, in schools and on buses because of the clothing and beads that identify them as practitioners of Candomblé, but they are committed to drawing other young people to the religion and promoting public policies for Afro-Brazilian and Candomblé youth.

In the 2000 census, only 11,959 inhabitants of Salvador, a mere 0.48 percent of the city’s total population, identified themselves as members of an African-based religion, such as Candomblé or Umbanda. This obviously gross underestimate can only be explained by prejudice and the fear of repercussions.

Eldon Araujo Lage, also known as Gigio, is one of the few white Brazilians in the local Candomblé hierarchy, and was forced to leave home at the age of 15 to escape the objections of his family and “follow his dreams.” Today, at the age of 49, he is a priest at a Candomblé temple in Beirú, a poor neighbourhood in Salvador that actually grew up around the temple itself.

When he was a teenager, Lage recounts, he dreamed three times about a house and a man. It was only after he had become involved in the religious and community life of the Beirú temple that he found out that the house in his dream was a former temple in the same spot, and the man was its founder. Nevertheless, he initially faced a certain degree of resistance here: “Candomblé is not for white people,” he was told.

A self-taught expert on the history of his religion, Lage says that Candomblé today has “a new vision, reaching out from the temple to the outside world.” That new vision also includes the “re-Africanisation” of the religion’s deities, which were formerly “disguised” with Christian names to avoid the repression of the state and the Catholic church.

A recently passed law which includes Afro-Brazilian history in the regular school curriculum could help strengthen the movement.

Meanwhile, although the relationship between Candomblé and the Catholic Church has developed into one of “peaceful coexistence” with a few minor frictions, “the neo-Pentecostals have come armed for war,” with attacks and threats of invasion, Lage told IPS.

Despite ongoing tensions, Lage said that a health fair organised by the temple in 2006 helped to dampen hostilities, because “they saw that we don’t have devils with horns and tails, like they thought,” he joked.

Moreover, he believes that the situation has created new opportunities and posed a challenge for the reaffirmation of the religion through the weeding out of “charlatans” and greater dissemination of knowledge of Candomblé, aided by the Internet. (END/2009)

By Mario Osava