Historic minority religions in Brazil are increasingly facing a form of religious scrutiny under the country’s President, Jair Bolsonaro, it is claimed.

Some 500,000 people in Brazil participate in religions brought to the Americas hundreds of years ago by African slaves but these religions are under attack from the growing presence of fundamentalist Evangelical Christians.

Among those allegedly being targeted are those who practice Umbanda and Candomblé, the country’s most prominent Afro-Brazilian religions. Though their members are said to represent less than 1% of the population, or about half a million people, they account for most cases of religious intolerance.

Out of 116 reports of discrimination recorded in the first half of 2018, 72 followers of Candomblé and Umbanda were targeted for their beliefs.

In the first three months of this year, hate crimes against Afro-Brazilian religious groups increased by more than 50% compared to the same period last year, with hundreds of cases of vandalism and threats reported.

Leaders of the two minority religious groups say that discrimination against their members is not new but has intensified since the arch-conservative nationalist Bolsonaro was elected last autumn.

During his election campaign, Bolsonaro unapologetically dismissed the concerns of Brazil’s indigenous and Afro-Brazilian communities by stating “There is no such thing as a secular state. The Brazilian state is Christian and the minority will have to change…if they can.”

Under Bolsonaro, the climate for Afro-Brazilian believers is expected to become increasingly perilous, partly because he has actively courted the most extreme religious elements in the Evangelical community, a traditionally fundamentalist strain of Protestantism that takes a hardline and fundamentalist view of other Christian denominations as well as other religions.

In one of the most prominent cases of religious intolerance, the head of a Candomblé temple was forced to break, at gunpoint, religious reliquaries by a narco-trafficker connected with ties to the country’s Evangelical community.

Brazil’s minority community leaders have also pointed to Bolsonaro’s appointment of a controversial Evangelical pastor, Damares Alves, as his minister for women, family and human rights.

In February, a video was circulated in which Alves accused the previous administration of distributing Satanic handbooks to schools. The link with the devil was not accidental, according to Candomblé leader Ivanir dos Santos, but was aimed at demonising Afro-Brazilian religions.

“It is a form of religious racism,” said Dos Santos.

In response to the attacks, the city of Rio de Janeiro has founded the country’s first Council for Religious Freedom and opened a hotline for reports of religious intolerance.

“What we are seeing is a religion that is being slowly destroyed. Several Afro-Brazilian temples are being decimated each year,” said Marcio de Jagun, the head of Brazil’s State Council for the Promotion of Religious Freedom.

The council alleges that evangelical churches and some of their members are behind the attacks and have claimed that Afro-Brazilian religions are witchcraft and the work of the devil.

There has been a huge growth in the number of Evangelical churches in Brazil since the 1970s with up to 22% of the population now identifying themselves as members of the church. Despite the Candomblecists and Umbandists’ small numbers, the country’s Afro-Brazilian religions have a major cultural impact on Brazil since the two religions were introduced by African slaves who were brought by the Portuguese to Brazil in the early 15th-century.

Since the end of the Inquisition, Catholics of mestiço, or mixed-racial backgrounds, often also practice Umbanda or Candomblé in what is locally called “dual membership.”

 This content is part of the ‘Religious Freedom’ section supported by the Faith and Freedom Summit Coalition.