Ronilso Pacheco, Theologian: "The Attacks Against Religions Of African Origin In Brazil Are The Result Of The Environment Of Violence Created By Bolsonaro"

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro used the word “cristofobia” on Tuesday, September 22, during his speech at the 75th UN General Assembly. By citing that term, which defines aversion to Christianity or to those who profess the Christian faith, the president of Brazil made a call “to the entire international community for religious freedom and the fight against cristofobia.” Bolsonaro added that Brazil is a “Christian and conservative country that has its base in the family” – even though the Brazilian State is secular, as established by the Federal Constitution.

Before arriving at Bolsonaro’s speech, the term ‘cristofobia’ had been used by parliamentarians from the Evangelical Caucus in Congress. In 2015, for example, a federal deputy used the word to attack the demonstrations of the LGTB Parade. Four years earlier, a bill that created the Day of the fight against cristofobia was processed in the Municipal Chamber of Sao Paulo.

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The existence of cristofobia in a country with a Christian majority – 50% of the inhabitants are Catholic and 31% evangelical, according to Datafolha – is contradictory. The most discriminated against for religious reasons in the country are the practitioners of Umbanda, Candomblé and other religions of African origin, according to data from the Federal Government itself: of 506 cases registered last year by the state service that receives complaints of human rights violations, only 23 were from attacks against evangelical sectors.

“There is prejudice, just as there are prejudices against various groups,” but “Christians have in their hands the entire apparatus of state power,” says Ronilso Pacheco, theologian and researcher on Church, society and civil rights. Pacheco has spoken with Agência Pública from the United States, where he is pursuing a master’s degree in Theology from the Union Theological Seminary of Columbia University, New York.

The theologian and researcher emphasizes that Brazil is not among the countries in which there is persecution against Christians. Prejudice exists, even among evangelical denominations, “because of class issues, because of racial issues,” he says. According to Pacheco, Bolsonaro used the term cristofobia in a strategic way and everything indicates that it will mark the electoral debates in defense of an ultra-conservative agenda.

Is it a legitimate debate from your point of view to speak of cristofobia? Is there really a bias against Christians or against Evangelicals?

Prejudice exists, just as there are prejudices against various groups. The point is that this prejudice is far from being characterized as a phobia against Christ or against believers. It cannot be denied that there is a prejudice on the beliefs of evangelicals, for example, the way of life, customs. Even an intra-ecclesiastical prejudice among evangelical churches, for example, between the most elite churches and the Pentecostals, markedly more impoverished and generally located on the peripheries.

On the one hand, there are churches with poorer people, many without full schooling, and others more elitist, with pastors with academic training. When you cross these relationships there is prejudice, but they are fraught with class problems, racial problems, considering that many of the poorest and most peripheral churches have a very strong black presence. In this context, evangelicals are often seen as inflexible and isolated, there is a generalization.

But this is all completely different from the ‘cristofobia’ speech. This discourse does not apply because it erroneously compares Brazil with countries where, in fact, there is persecution of Christians. In Brazil there are many conservative and fundamentalist evangelicals within the Government. It is absolutely contradictory to say that there is ‘cristofobia’ when this religious group has in its hands the entire apparatus of state power.

Could ‘christophobia’ be compared to the idea of ​​’reverse racism’?

It is something that is in the same field. The idea of ​​’reverse racism’ somehow, however strange it may be, tries to acknowledge that racism exists and is a generalized mentality. The seriousness of this concept of ‘cristofobia’ is that it does not recognize this prejudiced mentality that affects different groups. It assumes a place of supposed vulnerability and persecution towards a specific group, which would be Christians and, above all, evangelicals. It is a similar error, but with this aggravation, which in my opinion is extremely significant and dangerous.

Bolsonaro also said, in the same speech at the UN, that Brazil is a Christian and conservative country, although the State is secular. What is the symbolism of this declaration before the international community?

The president’s emphasis, until now, was that the state was secular, even though the government was Christian. More and more he abandons this discourse and assumes another before the international community in which he presents Brazil as a country that has an ideological and religious identity, that is, it is Christian and conservative. Saying this in front of the international community is to subjugate all the diversity that exists in Brazilian society and at the same time it is the affirmation of a Christian religious supremacy, which is part of this Government project.

Does the Christian fundamentalism that is growing in the country represented by leaders like Bolsonaro stimulate prejudice against other religions, such as those of African origin?

Religious fundamentalism promotes the maintenance of historical prejudices against religions of African origin, crossed by racism in Brazil. When Bolsonaro says that although the State is secular, the country is Christian and conservative, he is mainly repressing the most persecuted and vulnerable religions in the Brazilian religious context. This position is pernicious and harmful to social plurality, not only from the point of view of beliefs.

It is not just that the religious conviction of the president or members of the government is Christian. More than religious conviction, it is the construction of a political project that involves the religious perspective imposed in a generalized way on society: in public policies, in the recognition of social groups and minorities. It has a much greater impact beyond the religious. There is a non-recognition of the presence of religious diversity. There is a non-recognition of the violence suffered by religions of African origin. But there is also a threat to individual freedoms when government proposals are made under the scrutiny of fundamentalist and conservative Christian perspectives.

Is the increase in complaints of religious intolerance related to this, especially with attacks on terreiros – places of worship of Afro-Brazilian religions – and other violent acts?

Attacks against religions of African origin have increased in Brazil and this is linked to a more violent and persecution environment. To the extent that there is a systematic denial of persecution and violence and there is no public policy that recognizes these threats, we are contributing to an environment of increasing violence.

Until mid-2010, the debate on religious intolerance had grown stronger. Undoubtedly, there has been a setback, with an increase in reports of both physical violence and verbal attacks against religions of African origin. This, without a doubt, is the result of an environment of violence and prejudice also created by the current Government.

He was talking about a project of Christian supremacy. Could you explain that concept better?

The evangelical field has always been in dispute for the public sphere, for the influence of political power. But now it’s like they’re in a big turn. There is a very clear supremacy project, with an emphasis on valuing an idea of ​​religious persecution, as a reflection of what is happening in the United States, where Christian practices in public schools are under debate, for example. In this supremacy project, conservative Christians occupy strategic positions in Bolsonaro’s government: in Education, in Justice, in Human Rights, in Capes [Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de nivel superior, que depende del Ministerio de Educación y que se enfoca en la evaluación de los programas de posgrado y en las becas para estudiantes de ese nivel], in the Public Defender’s Office of the Union, in the National Council of Education. Also in Foreign Relations, with Ernesto Araújo, who has spearheaded a great global alliance for religious freedom, which in reality is limited to strengthening Christian freedom and the interference of Christianity in society. It is a project of clear supremacy, whose great crowning will be the presence in the Supreme Federal Court.

Is the president’s call to fight ‘cristofobia’ an electoral strategy?

It is something that is related to the supremacy project coordinated with other countries such as the United States and Hungary. The electoral strategy is in tow. ‘Cristophobia’ can be used to protect ultra-conservative nominations and guidelines. It is a term that can be applied to anything. A debate on homophobic discourses – what is belief and what is hate speech – can be framed as ‘cristofobia’; a debate on the functioning of religious therapeutic communities against drugs for example. Any discussion that questions the practices of Christian therapeutic communities, which do not respect the basics of mental health policy, can be framed in a perspective of ‘cristofobia’. In security, linked to the excesses of the Police, in bills and order. In education, where the National Board of Education is infused with a conservative evangelical presence, any resistance to Christian morals and values ​​can be interpreted in this way. Anyone who questions the ultra-conservative agenda could be a Christophobe. In this perspective, the term ‘cristofobia’ serves to shield any type of proposal and will probably be used as a decisive electoral strategy in the next elections.

This article was originally published by Agência Pública

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