SANTA CRUZ, Brazil — The religious ceremony had only just begun when Caroline Linhares unleashed a long, guttural roar, clearly audible over the drums and chanting. She had been “incorporated,” she said, by one of the deities being celebrated in this outlying Rio de Janeiro suburb one recent Saturday night, in a white house down a dirt road.
Linhares, 22, a security guard, came outside and sat in the yard: perspiring, shaken, yet cheerful. Then she rushed back inside.
“I don’t remember anything,” she said later. “It’s really something from another world.”
This is Candomblé, a Brazilian religion that developed from animist beliefs imported by African slaves. During four hours of singing, drumming and dancing, devotees screamed, grimaced or froze as they were incorporated by these deities, called Orixás. Associated with forces of nature, many are synchronized also with Catholic saints, so slaves could hoodwink their Catholic Portuguese masters and secretly keep worshiping them.
Candomblé survived centuries of slavery, but the quasi-respectability it has gained in recent decades is now under concentrated attack from radical Evangelical Christians, a growing force in Catholic Brazil, who regard it as the devil’s work and its priests and priestesses as little more than neighborhood witches.
Tactics range from propaganda blitzkriegs launched on blogs and YouTube videos to threats, violence and expulsions from drug gangs. Afro-Brazilian religious leaders and sympathizers are fighting back in court. A low-intensity war is being fought for Brazilian souls.
“Candomblé is as beautiful a religion as you could imagine,” said Luiz José de Sousa, 57, a priest, or “father-of-saint,” who presided over the Santa Cruz ceremony during which four newcomers were initiated, including a small boy. “We worship nature,” he said. “There are all kinds of prejudice.”
The gate-arch outside the white house identifies it as the “Palace of Logun Edé” — a Candomblé deity associated with riches.
“Candomblé meets my spiritual needs,” said Sheila Souza, 30, a telemarketing operator, at another Candomblé ceremony a week earlier, in Rio’s Abolição neighborhood. “Brazilians have a lot of African heritage,” she added.
Like 43 percent of Brazilians in the 2010 census, Souza defined herself as parda, or mixed race, while just under 8 percent identified as black and 48 percent as white. White faces overwhelmingly dominate advertising, media and politics in Brazil.
Adailton Moreira, a father-of-saint and member of Rio’s Commission to Combat Religious Intolerance, said Candomblé priests and centers have been expelled from many Rio favelas by drug gangs influenced by radical Evangelical Christians, whose churches have proliferated in these areas. “Racism is intrinsically holding hands with religious intolerance,” said Moreira.
His mother, Beatriz Moreira Costa, 84, Mother Beatá, is a revered “mother-of-saint.”
Costa said she was “predestined” to become a Candomblé priestess and traced her own ancestry back to Africa. Her great-grandparents were abducted while tending goats in Nigeria and sold into slavery, she said. One of their two young children died during the slave ship journey to Brazil. “They suffered so much,” she said.
A Candomblé center north of Rio run by priestess Maria de Conceição, 53, has been attacked eight times in recent years. In June, the center’s upper floor was set on fire and destroyed. Previously, shots were fired at her center and her nearby house, and her car was set on fire.
“It is like you have been raped. Everyone asks, ‘What did you do for this to happen?’ From victim you become a participant,” she said, showing off scorch marks on the walls, piles of charred wood and a melted plastic water tank. The leaking roof rendered the center unusable. Nobody has been arrested for the attacks. “That’s why I say we can’t be silent, we have to speak,” she said.
Aspects of Candomblé have entered mainstream Brazilian culture — millions offer flowers to the sea goddess Yemanjá, sometimes associated with the Virgin Mary, on New Year’s Eve and Feb. 2. Its more popular sister religion Umbanda combines Candomblé with Catholic traditions and saints. On a recent Sunday in São Gonçalo, a poor suburb near Rio, an Umbanda ceremony featured the drumming and incorporations seen in Candomblé, but worshipers also said Catholic prayers.
In a separate room in the yard, small statues holding pitchforks were lit by a red bulb. These were Exús, explained Eliana Soares, 56, earthly deities charged with more prosaic requests such as a new job and rewarded with cigarettes or alcohol. “Exús open the way,” said Soares. “They work in the front line.”
Some Candomblé priests sell access to spirits such as these. “You can put a curse on someone or attract someone from the opposite sex,” said Souza. Hand-painted ads offer such services all over Brazilian cities.
Evangelicals object to Candomblé’s relaxed attitude to homosexuality and the secret ceremonial killings of animals, whose blood and entrails are offered to Orixás while the rest is eaten. But religious freedom is protected under Brazilian law. The country is a secular state. And as religious intolerance becomes more of an issue, the law has become another battleground.
Evangelical Pastor Tupirani Lores, 48, grew up in central Rio in a family that participated in Afro-Brazilian religions. In his early 20s, he converted to Evangelical Christianity, opening his own Generation Jesus Christ church. “The Afro-religions in Brazil, they are Satanic,” he said.
In 2008, four members of his congregation entered an Umbanda center in central Rio and smashed statues and idols. In 2009, he and Afonso Lobato, one of those involved in the incident, were jailed for 18 days for religious discrimination after attacking Afro-Brazilian and other religions on blogs and videos posted to YouTube. In one video, Lobato said Afro-Brazilian religions were the devil’s work and their leaders homosexuals.
In 2012, both men were found guilty and given jail sentences that they are appealing. “The question is that nobody silences my voice,” Tupirani said. “Nothing is going to stop me.”
But he condemned violent attacks on Candomblé. “They have the right to exist even though the Bible condemns their practices,” he said.
There are signs that Candomblé and Umbanda are growing in Brazil’s middle class, but they remain heavily outnumbered. In 2010, 42 million Brazilians ca lled themselves Evangelicals (out of a total population of about 190 million), with just over half a million saying they followed Afro-Brazilian religions .
Last year, Rio prosecutors launched a civil action to require Google to remove videos attacking Afro-Brazilian religions from YouTube. A judge ruled against them, writing that Afro-Brazilian religions could not be considered true religions because they lack a written text, a hierarchical structure and a god.
Then a higher court reversed his ruling, pointedly referring to “religions from the African matrix” and ordering the videos removed. Google says it is appealing. Tupirani said he will continue posting videos attacking Afro-Brazilian religions.
“When the ships came with the African slaves, they did not have luggage to bring African libraries,” said lawyer Humberto Adami, who has represented Candomblé leaders. Rulings like this, he said, trace lines in the sand for Brazilian social justice.
“They call it combat advocacy,” he said. Public defenders in Rio are now preparing a case over a child forbidden to enroll in school for wearing clothing indicating Afro-Brazilian religious beliefs. Five years ago, a teacher banned Caroline Linhares from class for the same reason. Today, the battle lines for Brazil’s spiritual warfare are being redrawn, and no armistice is in view.