BELFORD ROXO, Brazil -- Beyond the storefront churches and sidewalk bars on Rio's gritty north side, where the asphalt ends and dirt roads begin, Brazil gives way to Africa.
The sound of atabaques, or African drums, rises in the night air from a squat brick house, and a full-throated tenor sings incantations in the ancient Yoruba tongue of Nigeria.
Women dance and chant to invoke the Orixas, gods worshiped by their African ancestors, during a Candomble ceremony. The religion is making inroads even among the middle class in Brazil.
(Silvia Izquierdo -- AP)
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Inside, slightly bored children play quietly while women in swirling skirts dance in a circle, chanting to invoke the Orixas -- the gods worshiped by their African ancestors.
This is Candomble, a religion once banned in Brazil, now emerging into public acceptance while overcoming fierce and even violent competition.
Brought to Brazil by African slaves, religions such as Candomble, Tambor de Mina, Batuque and Umbanda long had to be practiced in secret. The deities were disguised as Catholic saints -- the sea goddess Iemanja, for instance, became the Virgin Mary.
But even after slavery was abolished in 1888, Candomble was still considered backward, if not blasphemous -- the province of the poor and dispossessed.
Now Afro-Brazilian religions are flourishing throughout Brazil, even among the middle class.
"Candomble keeps growing because people are always looking for spiritual support. They are always going from church to church and back again. But when they get serious about Candomble, it becomes a family affair," explains Mother Eliana, who runs one of the estimated 4,000 terreiros, or Candomble temples, in the Rio area.
"New terreiros keep opening up. It's impossible to keep track of them," said Ricardo Oliveira de Freitas, a researcher associated with the Superior Institute for the Study of Religion, a Rio-based think tank.
The strongest opposition comes from Pentecostal churches, which are also growing fast in predominantly Catholic Brazil. Since the 1980s, Pentecostals have physically attacked terreiros, throwing rocks at the buildings and holding vocal protests outside their doors. Preachers routinely rail against Candomble, particularly the ritual sacrifice of barnyard animals, calling it the devil's work.
The animal sacrifices are hard to ignore. Offerings of blood and body parts are commonly seen on street corners.
Some believe the Pentecostals' attacks have strengthened Candomble.
In 2002, Candomble followers won two defamation lawsuits against the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, which published photos of them in its newspaper, saying they were possessed by the devil.
"With the lawsuits, Candomble followers began to discover they have rights guaranteed under the constitution. This was a very powerful message for people who for years had to disguise their religion," said Jose Marmo da Silva of the group Ato-Ire, which works to distribute health information in the terreiros.
Anthropologist Raul Lody, author of books on Candomble, said the Pentecostals have changed tack: "Instead of attacking Candomble, some churches are incorporating some cult elements into their services -- not the complex rituals, but elements that will be familiar to those who grow up in the religion."
Freitas said Candomble centers have a social appeal that many churches lack. "At terreiros, people eat, flirt and court. It's a religion that celebrates life," he said. They have no problem ministering to homosexuals, prostitutes and others who have been marginalized by mainstream churches.
Brazil has long thought of itself as multicultural, but in recent years citizens have come around to the realization that the lighter-skinned half of the population of 182 million holds the bulk of the nation's wealth and power. During the past decade, a black civil rights movement has been demanding benefits, such as racial quotas, in university policies, contracts, employment and TV and movie roles.
Silva said many terreiros play a part, serving as centers of black consciousness where people get information about health, education and their civil rights.
But some worry that Candomble's growing popularity is distancing it from its roots.
"Lots of people take one little lesson and declare themselves masters," Mother Eliana said. "But opening a terreiro is a serious obligation. We do a lot of things, like animal sacrifices and ritual scarring, that scare people.
"You have to prepare people so they understand why we do these things."