RIO DE JANEIRO — Wagner Machado, a priest from the Afro-Brazilian faith Umbanda, was focused on final details for a religious ceremony in a public square. Wooden drums stood ready, a vase of roses was atop a white tablecloth and the scent of incense was wafting through the air. Then a passerby shattered the silence:
"The Lord Jesus is coming! You will go to hell!" shouted the man, who carried a Bible in one hand and pointed his other toward the sky.
Machado fired back: "Respect my religion, you intolerant criminal!"
The confrontation on Wednesday in Sao Goncalo, the second largest city in Rio de Janeiro's metropolitan region, has become all too common and underscored why Machado and likeminded religious leaders are running for office in Nov. 15 municipal elections, demanding their worshippers be protected amid a wave of harassment.
"Running for office is hard enough, but representing the banner of Afro-Brazilian religions is even harder," said Machado, known more commonly by his nickname Waguinho Macumba. "The banner is replete with prejudices and discrimination."
As Portuguese colonists brought African slaves to Brazil, the enslaved men and women developed blends of their religions with Catholicism, which today include Candomble and Umbanda. They're practiced by a tiny minority – some 600,000 of the more than 200 million Brazilians, according to the 2010 census — and Rio de Janeiro state is home to one quarter of them.
The religions are often demonized in neo-Pentecostal Christian churches, which have proliferated in Brazil since the 1970s, according to Márcio de Jagun, the state's superintendent for promoting religious freedom.
While most neo-Pentecostal proselytizing is peaceful, its spread has been accompanied by a surge of intolerance against Afro-Brazilian religions, he added. In rare instances, pastors have been found explicitly directing radicalized evangelicals to dispense violence. Last year, police arrested a group of drug traffickers for terrorizing Afro-Brazilian religious groups and trashing their temples in another of the Rio metro area's cities; they had been following orders from a pastor known as "Big Fish."
"The temples are being destroyed, we can't wear our (traditional) clothes on the street," said Claudia Lima, an Umbanda priestess who is running for Rio's city council. She is a member of PDT-Axé, a group that derives its name from the initials of Brazil's Democratic Labor Party and the vital cosmic force in Candomble and Umbanda.
"We need to fight to be respected," Lima added.
Incidents of religious intolerance in Rio state have grown steadily since 2016, according to data from the social development and human rights secretariat. In the first half of 2020, 24 of 31 attacks targeted members of Afro-Brazilian faiths. In 2016, the year of the last municipal elections, 14 attacks occurred over 12 months.
"The greater the violence, the more candidates appear," said Jagun.
This isn't the first time members of Afro-Brazilian religions have run for office, but 2020 confirms the growth trend, according to Maurício Santoro, a political science professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. Electoral authorities don't collect data on how many candidates are priests of these faiths.
The strong presence of evangelicals in politics may have encouraged candidates from religious minorities, Santoro added. The evangelical voting bloc in Congress is a particularly powerful force, comprised of 105 deputies and 15 senators, roughly 20% of Congress.
Evangelicals provided crucial support for President Jair Bolsonaro's 2018 election, and he has shown his gratitude. In Rio's mayoral election, Bolsonaro is supporting the reelection of Mayor Marcelo Crivella, a bishop from one of Brazil's most popular evangelical churches.
At the Umbanda ritual on Wednesday, the man who screamed at Machado's gathering told The Associated Press that he worships at an evangelical church, but declined to provide his name.
Machado said he needs at least 2,000 votes in Sao Goncalo to be elected on Sunday. He said that if he wins, he will work to pass legislation requiring Africa-influenced culture to be taught in public schools, and to secure funds for projects to combat discrimination.
"No city councilor is committed to our causes," Machado said. "If we want to represent Axé, someone from the Axé will need to speak for us."