Sacking the Saints – Pentecostal Persecution of Religious Rivals in Brazil

Sacking the Saints – Pentecostal Persecution of Religious Rivals in Brazil May 11, 2021

Co-authored by Dr. Ana Keila Mosca Pinezi* and Dr. Andrew Chesnut

One of the lamentable new trends on the dynamic religious landscape of Brazil is Pentecostal intolerance and even persecution of its religious rivals. Over the past five decades Pentecostalism has mushroomed in the South American giant to the point that now Brazil is not only home to the largest Catholic population on the planet but also the biggest Pentecostal one. Before the Pentecostal boom, which Chesnut has studied throughout his career, it was the monopolistic Catholic Church that persecuted both Evangelicals and followers of Umbanda and Candomble, the two main Afro-Brazilian religions. On the vast sugar plantations of the Brazilian Northeast African slaves were force to camouflage their devotion to the Orixas, or deities of Candomble, by associating them with Catholic saints. For example, Ogum, the warrior god, was syncretized with English patron, Saint George. In a similar vein, Pentecostals in the first decades of the 20th century were often forced to hold their river baptisms in remote areas under the cover of darkness lest Catholic mobs, incited by parish priests, pelt them with stones while screaming profanities at them for abandoning the “one true faith.”

But long gone are the days when Catholicism was the primary persecutor of religious rivals. Beginning in the 1980s with the dramatic growth of Neo-Pentecostal denominations, most importantly the controversial Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG), zealous young Pentecostals began to persecute followers of Umbanda and Candomble, raiding their terreiros (places of worship), desecrating altars and sometimes even physically assaulting the mothers and fathers of the saints, as the ritual leaders are known. During the 1980s and 90s Umbanda and Candomble were the main victims of Pentecostal persecution, but there were occasional assaults on Catholicism, such as the infamous “chute na santa” (kicking the saint) incident in which UCKG bishop, Sergio von Helde, drop-kicked and punched a statue of Brazilian patroness, the Virgin of Aparecida on live TV!

Over the past couple decades Neo-Pentecostal gangsters in the notorious favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro have largely replaced older gangs that identified more with Afro-Brazilian religions. Conversions to the Pentecostal gang, “Bandits of Jesus,” have allowed gangsters to develop a more positive image among residents of the favelas, and they are welcomed into the churches in part for their ability to provide protection services for members and especially church staff. In this way the Pentecostal identity of narcos can be beneficial for their illicit business. The bonds formed in the churches afford mutual protection in which the code of silence on the part of members helps protect the Neo-Pentecostal narcos from law enforcement and rival gangs. Neo-Pentecostal discourse, rooted in Prosperity Theology, focuses on attacking religious rivals, most importantly Umbanda, Candomble, and Catholicism.

In the case of Afro-Brazilian religions, Neo-Pentecostal discourse is particularly aggressive, feeding off the Brazilian imaginary in which they are viewed as demonic faiths and as such must be combatted and destroyed. Church members must be divine agents  who destroy terreiros and Afro-Brazilian “idols.” In this Holy War the narco-converts are the powerful foot soldiers expanding their criminal networks. Among the Neo-Pentecostal criminal groups “the Jesus Gang” of Rio has made recent headlines for conducting a campaign of religious terrorism against Candomble terreiros in the Rio district of Duque de Caxias. 21 members of the Jesus Gang were arrested with 8 being jailed and one killed by Rio police. The leader of the Jesus Gang, known as `Peixão´ (Big Fish), is also a member of the Pure Third Command (Terceiro Comando Puro [TCP]), a powerful Rio crime syndicate.

The TCP ranks as the third most powerful crime syndicate in Rio and has a strong Pentecostal imprint. It seems the the TCP was born of a split with the Red Command (Comando Vermelho) in the 1980s. Fernando Gomes de Freitas, aka Fernandinho Guarabu, is one of the most prominent leaders of the gang. Rio police estimated in 2007 that he was earning at least $36 million a month from drug trafficking and other illicit activities headquartered on Ihla do Governador, close to Rio’s international airport. That same year Fernandinho converted to Pentecostalism and as proof of being born again he had “Jesus Cristo” tattooed in big print on his forearm.

Unfazed by their own demonic activities, the TCP and Jesus Gang have been carrying out a terrorist campaign against Umbanda and Candomble terreiros in the barrios under their control. In the prisons, where many narcos convert to Neo-Pentecostalism, pastors demonize Afro-Brazilian religions preaching that the Exus (liminal trickster spirits) of Umbanda, for example, are the cause of their suffering. Once out of prison, the new converts join the Jesus Gang and others that raid the terreiros with the goal of chasing them out of the barrios under their control. The Holy War against the priestesses and priests of Umbanda and Candomble isn’t only aimed at extirpating the ‘evil spirits’ from the barrio but also fortifying Pentecostal dominion by imposing their evangelical faith as the hegemonic one in the barrios under their control.

Even though Pentecostal gangs have been persecuting followers of Umbanda and Candomble for more than a decade now, there’s been an uptick in raids and desecrations of terreiros in Rio since Jair Messias Bolsonaro became president. The “savior” of both the nation and Evangelicals, Bolsonaro was elected with 70% of the Evangelical vote and undoubtedly with at least 80% of the Pentecostal electorate who constitute 75% of all Brazilian Protestants. With a president who shares their faith, having been baptized in the Jordan River by a Pentecostal pastor, the bandits of Jesus feel newly empowered to eradicate Candomble and Umbanda terreiros from their zones of influence.

The latest act of Evangelical persecution, however, was against its Christian rival, the Catholic Church. On the evening of May 3 four Evangelical teenagers raided Our Lady of Remedies church in Osasco, on the outskirts of Sao Paulo. Their main targets were Catholic “idols” and to that end they vandalized seven statues of saints, two of which are of historical significance. Not content with iconoclasm alone, the zealous teens completed the desecration of the church by tossing dirt in the sanctuary and vandalizing the bathrooms. The parish priest was able to chase the young Evangelicals down and ask them why they did it. One of them responded that they did it “in the name of Jesus.” Pentecostals are Bolsonaro’s core constituency so we can expect more acts of religious persecution and intolerance with much impunity for the duration of his presidency.

*Dr. Ana Keila Mosca Pinezi is Professor at the Universidade Federal do Triângulo Mineiro (UFTM) in Brazil where she researches matters of religion and society. She is the author of several books and articles, such as`A vida pela ótica da esperança: um estudo comparativo entre a Igreja Presbiteriana do Brasil e a Igreja Internacional da Graça´, Editora da UFABC, 2015. Follow her on Twitter.


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