DUQUE DE CAXIAS, Brazil — There was a pounding at the door. Strange, the priest thought: He wasn’t expecting anyone. Marcos Figueiredo hurried to the entrance of his home temple and opened it.
“Nobody wants macumba here,” one of them told Figueiredo, using an ethnic slur, according to testimony he provided to authorities. “You have one week to stop all of this.”
They fired into the air and left, leaving Figueiredo with an impossible choice: his faith — or his life.
It’s a decision more Brazilians are being forced to make. As evangelicalism reconfigures the spiritual map in Latin America’s largest country, attracting tens of millions of adherents, winning political power and threatening Catholicism’s long-held dominance, its most extreme adherents — often affiliated with gangs — are increasingly targeting Brazil’s non-Christian religious minorities.
Priests have been killed. Children have been stoned. An elderly woman was seriously injured. Death threats and taunts are common. Gangs are unfurling the flag of Israel, a nation seen by some evangelicals as necessary to bringing about the return of Christ.
Candomblé — like Santería and Voodoo, rooted in the belief systems brought to Latin America by enslaved people from West Africa — is vanishing from entire communities.
“Some of them call themselves ‘Jesus drug dealers,’ creating a unique identity,” said Gilbert Stivanello, commander of the Rio police department’s crimes of intolerance unit. “They carry weapons and sell drugs, but feel entitled to forbid African-influenced religions by stating that they are related to the devil.”
The mounting violence has horrified mainstream evangelicals. “When I see these [temples], I pray against it because there’s a demonic influence there,” said David Bledsoe, an American missionary who has spent two decades here. “But I would condemn such actions.”
The global ascent of evangelicalism and particularly Pentecostalism, its fastest-growing movement, has led to violence against indigenous and African religions from countries such as Haiti, Nigeria and Australia. But analysts say the forces fueling the prejudice here — the historic presence of religious minorities, newly emboldened evangelicalism and lax state oversight — are particularly acute.
Rio de Janeiro, long home to a diverse collection of Afro-Brazilian religions, is also now the center of Brazilian neo-Pentecostalism, a zealous strain of evangelicalism more frequently linked to intolerance.
The mayor is a bishop in a Pentecostal church. The city is home to President Jair Bolsonaro, baptized in the River Jordan and carried to office by the Pentecostal vote. And it’s the birthplace of the powerful Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, founded by Edir Macedo, a close Bolsonaro ally who wrote a book that condemns Afro-Brazilian religions as “diabolical” and “philosophies used by demons.” The book was briefly banned by a judge who deemed it “abusive and prejudicial.”
Those beliefs, espoused frequently by Brazilian Pentecostal pastors, now echo through Rio’s favelas, where evangelicalism is exploding and where authorities have largely relinquished control to gangs. The combination of religious prejudice and criminal impunity has enabled the coordinated targeting of practitioners of minority religions.
In Rio state, reports of religious-based violence against followers of Afro-Brazilian religions have risen from 14 in 2016 to 123 in the first 10 months of this year. State authorities call those figures vast undercounts — many victims, they say, are afraid to come forward. More than 200 temples have shut down in the face of threats this year, according to the Rio-based Commission to Combat Religious Intolerance, twice as many as last year, depriving thousands of people of their places of worship.
“It’s the quiet decimation of an entire community, and it’s the lowest of the low priorities,” said Robert Muggah, research director of the Rio-based Igarapé Institute, which tracks violence in Latin America. “They’re stuck, and in some of the most violent municipalities in Brazil, and quite possibly the world.”
Stuck: That’s exactly how Figueiredo felt in Parque Paulista. He didn’t have the money to relocate. He couldn’t start a new congregation. He had to choose.
Would he fight? Or would he close his temple?
He had one week to decide.
‘All evil has to be undone in the name of Jesus!’
In the past generation, Brazil has undergone a spiritual transformation like few other places on the planet. As recently as 1980, about 9 in 10 people here identified as Catholic. But that proportion has cratered to 50 percent, and will soon be overtaken by evangelicalism, which now accounts for one-third of the population.
The presence of evangelicalism feels larger still. Television is overrun by televangelism. The evangelical music industry is worth an estimated $1 billion. Evangelical politicians have pulled the country rightward on social issues. And the prison system, long the gangs’ most potent recruiting venue, has become the field for an entirely different kind of conversion.
Research shows that 81 of the 100 faith organizations working on social issues inside prisons are evangelical. The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God says it has dispatched a volunteer army of 14,000 church members to proselytize the imprisoned.
Those efforts, analysts say, have contributed to the growing evangelization of gang life in Brazil.
Christina Vital da Cunha, an associate professor of sociology at Federal Fluminense University, has spent decades studying evangelicalism in Rio’s favelas. “Some pastors and denominations strategically bet on converting traffickers in privileged places in the hierarchy of crime,” she said.
Several of the converted were leaders of the powerful gang Pure Third Command. The conversions, Vital said, helped instill a new “evangelical religious morality” in the criminal group as it waged a war of conquest against other gangs in Rio’s northern reaches — exactly where many followers of Afro-Brazilian religions had settled.
Jorge Duarte, 63, was a priest at the oldest Candomblé temple in Parque Paulista. He remembers when the Pure Third Command seized power, around 2012. The community of his childhood — bucolic, distant from the city, with Catholicism and African faiths coexisting — was gone. The Catholics had switched to evangelicalism. And now the dominant gang had, as well.
The rules that the gang instituted were minor at first, residents say, but soon shaped the daily existence of Candomblé followers. The Pure Third Command controlled their schedule, setting a curfew, allowing religious celebrations only on certain days, limiting temples to only a few visitors. Unfamiliar cars entering the community were stopped by armed men. Wearing the traditional white of Candomblé in public was banned.
“Things were like, ‘You know, it’s getting harder, but I’ll continue on,’ ” Duarte said. “Until it all blew up.”
Stories of religious persecution from other parts of the city started to filter in: An 11-year-old girl was told she was going to burn in hell, then was hit in the head with a rock. A 65-year-old woman was stoned. Images of her badly bruised face flashed across TV screens throughout the city.
A Candomblé priestess was forced, at gunpoint, to destroy all of the artifacts inside her temple, while gang members taunted her.
“All evil has to be undone in the name of Jesus!” one man said in a video of the assault. “I am all for the honor and glory of Jesus!” another added. “Break everything, because you are the devil!” came another command.
It has been two years since Carmen Flores was forced to destroy her artifacts — her ceramic vases and her figurines of religious spirits that guide humanity. But she still hears the taunts.
“I’m scared someone will come here and massacre us,” said Flores, 68. “I’m scared to go down the road. I’m scared to take the bus. It’s not only me.”
After more violence comes a painful decision.
Soon after the Soldiers of Jesus visited Figueiredo, they went to the oldest temple in Parque Paulista, its expanse of sacred trees and talismans hidden behind concrete walls. Four gang members knocked outside, pointed a gun at the 86-year-old priestess and ordered her to destroy all of the religious items in the house and set it aflame.
“Psychological torture,” said Vivian Lessa, her granddaughter. “You consider something sacred, then you’re forced to break it, while they’re saying, ‘No one is going to save you.’ ”
That episode taught Figueiredo all he needed to know. If the gang was willing to do that to an 86-year-old woman, what would they do to him? He believed he’d been put on Earth to be a religious leader — and tend to the temple his grandparents built — but even that calling wasn’t worth his life.
He wouldn’t fight. He would shut down.
In August, police announced the arrest of the “Jesus Gang,” eight members of the Pure Third Command. In the span of several weeks, authorities said, they had systematically destroyed or forced the closure of one temple after another. One of the men was the leader of the Third Command in Parque Paulista. In addition to his gang responsibilities, he was working as an evangelical pastor.
Figueiredo studied the news reports but didn’t see the faces of his assailants among the people arrested. They were still out there. They’d return. And when they did, how could he trust other residents to help, when they hadn’t the last time? How could he believe the government would help, when so many in power were evangelicals?
It was safer to stay closed. Before long, every temple that he knew of in Parque Paulista was gone.
“This one’s closed,” he said, driving through the neighborhood, indicating an abandoned building.
“Closed, too,” he said, seeing another. “Up ahead used to be another temple, but it’s closed.”
Looking out across the neighborhood — where his faith had been “prohibited” — he saw the future.
“Theocracy,” he said.
Heloisa Traiano contributed to this report.