REVIVAL FIRE CATCHING IN BRAZIL AS BELIEVERS EXCHANGE IMMORALITY FOR SALVATION
Pastor Marcio Antonio stands at the pulpit in a one room evangelical church built precariously above barbed wire fences and illegally hung electrical cables, exhorting his flock in a Brazilian favela to improve their morals. A former drug dealer in Cantagalo, an informally built hillside settlement where most residents lack official property rights, Pastor Antonio and his flock at the Assembly of God Church are part of a growing trend. Evangelical churches are expanding rapidly in Brazil, home to the world’s largest Catholic community, especially in poor favelas, experts and parishioners said. These communities, which developed from squatter settlements, often do not have the same services as formal Brazilian neighbourhoods in terms of healthcare, sanitation, transportation or formal property registration.
“The government doesn’t help us so God is the only option for the poor,” Pastor Antonio, 37, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation following his Sunday sermon. Wearing a white linen robe over a black shirt and tie, Antonio was born and raised in the favela where he preaches to a congregation of two dozen from a clean, one room church with a tiled floor and fans buzzing overhead. Like other poor young men, the lure of easy money drew him to the drug trade before he found God and a new mission. “There are a lot of problems here in the favela,” said Antonio, eating plain white bread and drinking black coffee after a two-hour sermon. “Poverty, a lack of work, crime, mental health issues, the church helps with these things.
In favela communities where the state often doesn’t have much of a presence, evangelical churches are gaining members partially by providing social services like education, security and economic development, analysts said. With conservative outlooks on birth control, abortion and other issues, the rise of evangelical churches drawing a base from poor communities is shifting Brazil’s political landscape to the right. Protestants, many of whom are evangelical, comprise more than 20 percent of Brazil’s 200 million population, up from less than three percent in 1940, according to the Pew Research Centre, a U.S.-based demographics organization. In favela communities, the proportion of evangelicals is generally higher, sometimes about 50 percent, said Jeff Garmany, a lecturer at King’s College London’s Brazil Institute.
“People in favelas are dealing with serious issues of stigma, poverty and violence,” Garmany told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “The state’s inability to adequately deal with these issues allowed the churches to grow and make inroads with people.” With more than 20 percent of Brazil’s big-city residents living in informal favelas, the growing sway of evangelicals among the working poor has translated into political power. “The evangelical churches aren’t just providing religious services in the favelas, they’re addressing social issues people are dealing with head-on,” Garmany said. In Cantagalo, one of three inter-linked favelas in southern Rio de Janeiro with a combined population of about 30,000, there are two catholic churches and more than 15 evangelical churches, Pastor Antonio said.
In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s second largest city, known for samba parties and skimpy bikinis, an evangelical bishop who opted to skip the city’s raucous Carnival celebrations, was elected mayor last year. Marcelo Crivella, founder of a mega-church, won much of the working-class vote despite being derided by some for controversial comments on Catholics and homosexuals. Crivella has pledged to improve public services such as transport, health and education rather than using the mayor’s office to push his conservative religious views. But analysts say his election, along with the impeachment of former left-leaning president Dilma Rousseff, signals a shift to the right in Brazilian politics. This is in turn linked to the growing power of evangelicals who draw disproportionate support from the urban poor, analysts say.
Part of the unique appeal of evangelical churches for favela residents is the sense of belonging they provide. “We are like a family,” said Luana de Souza, a housewife and member of Cantagalo’s Assembly of God Church. “The church helps out with things like finding work and education,” she said. De Souza, like pastor Antonio and most other worshippers at this church is of Afro-Brazilian heritage. Afro-Brazilians make up a large portion of the people living in favelas and face disproportionate levels of violence and harassment from the police. For worshipper Laiana Almeida, a babysitter who moved to Rio from Brazil’s poorer north east three years ago, the reason for the growth of evangelical churches in favelas is simple. “What the world can’t provide us, the church provides,” said Almeida following the Cantagalo service. “The church gives me things the physical world cannot offer.”
INDONESIAN CHRISTIAN GOVERNOR OF JAKARTA FOUND GUILTY OF BLASPHEMY
The governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as ‘Ahok’, has been found guilty of blasphemy and sentenced to two years in prison. He will appeal the sentence. Benedict Rogers, East Asia Team Leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) said: “This verdict and the sentence imposed represent an outrageous miscarriage of justice. It also represents a further, and severe, erosion of Indonesia’s values of religious pluralism as set out in the Pancasila, the state ideology.” “Indonesia’s ability to hold itself up as an example of a moderate, tolerant, Muslim-majority democracy is further threatened and is now very questionable. We urge the courts to overturn this verdict on appeal and acquit Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama.”
As a Chinese Christian, Ahok is Indonesia’s most prominent ethnic minority politician and was the first non-Muslim governor of Jakarta for over 50 years. His campaign for re-election was overshadowed by the blasphemy allegation against him and he lost the vote last month. On 27 September 2016, Ahok reportedly quoted a Qur’anic verse on the campaign trail while addressing concerns that his political opponents may use the verse to discourage people from voting for him as a non-Muslim. He was then falsely accused of criticising the verse itself. The court case against the governor was filed by several conservative Islamic groups. On 13 November 2016, Ahok was formally charged with blasphemy and his trial began on 13 December 2016. An estimated 500,000 Muslims turned up to a number of rallies in November and December 2016 to protest against his supposed blasphemy.
Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, yet it rejected theocracy at its foundation and adopted a state philosophy known as ‘Pancasila’, giving equal recognition to the major religions. The case against Ahok is part of a broader attempt to undermine the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in the country. On 10 January, the Indonesian National Commission for Human Rights (Komnas HAM) published a report detailing a steady increase in FoRB violations in recent years. CSW’s 2014 report, Indonesia: Pluralism in Peril, also found that rising religious intolerance poses a threat to Indonesia’s strong tradition of religious pluralism. Benedict Rogers added: “Indonesia’s blasphemy laws have been abused for too long, so we call on President Joko Widodo to review the blasphemy laws and amend or repeal them to prevent future injustices.”
NIGERIA: BOKO HARAM RELEASES 82 CHIBOK SCHOOLGIRLS
Eighty-two of the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls have been released by their Boko Haram captors. The nearly 300 girls were abducted three years ago, and while several of them were released previously, were able to escape, or reportedly died, this marks the largest release of the captives. The Nigerian government has been under pressure to negotiate the release of the girls. The girls’ parents and communities have not stopped campaigning for their rescue. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign received national attention. “I am very, very excited with this development. I cannot even sleep tonight,” said Yana Galang, whose daughter, Rifkatu, was among those kidnapped. She added that it’s not known yet if her daughter is among those who were released “but we’re very happy that many have been freed. I hope and pray that my daughter is among these released girls.”
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s government was able to negotiate the release of the girls in exchange for the release of suspected Boko Haram prisoners. “The President has repeatedly expressed his total commitment towards ensuring the safe return of the #ChibokGirls, and all other Boko Haram captives,” said a statement from the president’s office. The extremist Boko Haram militants have been terrorizing Nigeria for several years. Their name means “Western education is a sin,” and they especially target schools. The released girls are currently in military custody and will soon be transferred to a medical facility. Although there is much rejoicing at the release of the 82 girls, 113 still remain unaccounted for.