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Symposium 2016: Brazil
Image for Symposium 2016: Brazil
Photo credit: Alex Alton

by Gaylee Coverston

The Brazil session began with the Moderator, Odacyr Prigol, Chair of the Curitiba Chapter of the J. Rueben Clark Law Society and member of the Religious Freedom Commission of the Brazilian Bar Association, who introduced the four Brazilian delegates and the order of their presentations.

The first presenter was Rodrigo Vitorino Souza Alves, Director of the Brazilian Center of Studies in Law and Religion and Professor of Law at the Federal University of Uberlândia in Brazil. Professor Souza began his remarks on the religious diversity in Brazil with a brief summary of the history of religious demographics from the 1970s forward. In the recent years, religious diversity has increased tremendously. In the 1970s, the majority of the population declared itself to be Catholic, more than 90%. From that time to now Catholicism has diminished with an increase in various other religions particularly Christian religions of a protestant or evangelical persuasion. With this increase in diversity Brazil has managed to maintain a fairly syncretic environment. A corresponding change has occurred in the constitutions of Brazil increasing and improving legal stances on religious freedom. The 1988 Constitution has clear delineations of religious rights for every citizen. The one issue that still remains troublesome is the inclusion of religious artifacts in government buildings. The crucifix is a prominent religious symbol in many government locations. Attempts to provide representation from other religions produced a bible prominently displayed as well as a crucifix in the National Assembly Hall. These symbols represent the majority of religions from Brazil, currently over 85% of the population.  The supreme court recently declared that the right to religious freedom should remain in the private spaces of each citizen rather than the public arena. This declaration is in direct conflict with the current use of religious symbols in government locations.  Professor Rodrigo addressed the nature of the relationship between the state and religions. In Brazil, the state is considered to be secular, having a separation between the state and organized religion.  He continued by explaining the two basic systems of the secular state. The first is based on the American ideal of complete and total separation between religion and state. The second emphasizes the French ideal which includes a less defined separation. The French ideal holds a stronger sway currently in Brazil. There are public spaces where certain religions are accessible and thoughts and ideas are discussed for those who care to participate. Brazil continues to protect against discrimination and offers each citizen religious freedom within the limits of the constitution. Brazil has created an open, inclusive and ideological space for religious expression that generally is treated with respect and dignity. 

Alexandre Brasil Carvalho da Fonseca, Professor of Sociology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and the National Committee Coordinator for Respect for Religious Diversity Rights in the Federal Ministry of Women, Racial Equality, Youth, and Human Rights, presented next. In Brazil there exists a profound pluralism within each religion itself. The Catholic church has multiple groups of differing opinions within its ranks. There are many more religions that exist than those on the census record. This makes for an extremely complex issue in regards to religious freedom. However, one of the interesting current trends in Brazil is the disinterest in the youth of the country regarding religion, and the gradual increase in those who declare themselves to not be religious. To create a religion, have space for a service, be recognized by the government as a religion is very easy in Brazil. The state does not determine whether something is a religion or not, and is known for its minimal restrictions. Brazil has been a champion for religious freedom and pluralism. Regarding disrespect for religious freedom and intolerance conflicts which have increased in the last few years, Brazil has been working toward creating space for interreligious interactions and dialogue. The lack of respect and understanding comes from a disconnect socially with other beliefs. For the past ten years, Rio de Janeiro has annually hosted the Walk for Religious Freedom, which encourages people of all faiths to walk together in unity. Also, the 21st of January is the day to combat religious intolerance. Many groups and committees have been established to build interreligious relations. Respect comes with dialogue, familiarity and social interaction. In terms of tolerance education, Brazil is working with different films that depict religions in a complete and unbiased way to allow children the opportunity to accept other religious ideas without conflict oriented behavior or discrimination. Protections must be put into place for children and adolescents so that they can practice their religions according to their beliefs and not be persecuted at school or in other ways. Judicial procedures for religious freedom issues have mostly involved minorities and indigenous cultures: rights to protect Saturday worship, retreats for religious purposes, etc. He concluded with the thought that we all should have the goal of tolerance and respect to others and be willing to overcome the issues of others with love and respect.

Padre Marcus Barbosa Guimarães, the Vicar General in the Diocese of Nova Iguaçu, a parish priest, Advisor to the Group for Reflection on Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue of the Episcopal Pastoral Commission for Ecumenism, and the President of the Ecumenical Coordination of Service, followed Professor Alexandre Brasil. Father Marcus began expressing gratitude for the opportunity to be here at the symposium in communion with others of many religions. In Christ, we are all brothers and sisters. He explained his position and some of the work he does in his parish and how he also works to bring about ecumenism and defense of the rights of marginalized people. We have a thirst for peace that will only be found as we provide interreligious social interactions in order to develop closer relationships and a better understanding of each other’s religious inclinations. He spoke of how Brazil has many challenges in pursuing that peace previously mentioned.  He concentrated on only two of those many challenges that need to be addressed. First, there are diverse forms of religious intolerance that lead to an increase in violence. The increase in fundamentalisms of religions can create more walls than bridges and often augment the tendency of intolerance. Those of marginalized societies still face discrimination today in the twenty-first century, even to the point of death for their religious beliefs. Tolerance is much more than just enduring the presence of another, but to communicate openly, respect, seek to understand, discover what we have in common and walk together. The second challenge is what encompasses the definition of secular state. No religion should have privileges above another. The churches and the state should establish mutual cooperation in balancing the separation of religion and state. They need to address the following questions together: What does it mean to have religious freedom? How can that be applied in our plural society? How can our religious ceremonies be respected? How can we ensure that the ecumenical space is a safe environment for sharing? These questions are answered on a societal level but also, or even more importantly, on a personal level. Our personal responsibilities must include the pursuit of solutions to these issues and the dedication to support, execute, and follow through on these solutions in our own spheres.

Aroldo Barreto Cavalcante Filho, South American Area Director of the J. Rueben Clark Law Society and member of the Religious Freedom Commission of the Brazilian Bar Association, closed the session with his remarks. He began by expressing gratitude for the opportunity to participate in this panel of Brazilian experts. He then explained that every religion needs to have its place of worship where its members can have an externalization of their internal belief. It cannot only be internal for the full purpose of religion to be fulfilled. The government cannot hinder any religion from fully executing its worship service and other activities. He agreed with Professor Alexandre Brasil that it is very easy to establish a church in Brazil, to create and maintain a place of worship. However, that same government that so easily allows for religious freedom, often acts in direct opposition of that freedom by obstructing religious observance. The state must not hinder or impede any religion from completing its worship responsibilities and services to its members. The Brazilian government must be limited in its demands on religions and their places of worship so as not to interfere with the citizen’s right to their spiritual fulfillment. Recently, two cases emerged, among the many cases in the Brazilian courts, regarding religious freedom infringement by the state. One of the deficiencies of the Brazilian government is that it has no buildings suitable to fulfill the needs of an election. Therefore, in times of election, the government appropriates private buildings to fulfil this need. Unlike the United States where elections occur on Tuesdays, Brazil’s elections always occur on Sundays. The government is completely aware that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that Sundays are a sacred day for worshipping the Lord in His chapel. Even though the government knows this, two Church buildings were appropriated by the judge to function as an electoral location. When confronted about this appropriation, the advocate for the church asked about the 600 displaced members and how they were to worship for that Sunday, the judge said, “it is only one Sunday per year” if necessary, “two Sundays per year, it’s just a little thing.” Is robbing someone of their freedom “just a little thing?” Fortunately, the decision was favorable for the church and its 600 members. Brazil’s constitution and laws clearly protect religious freedom for all, yet still the state will violate those rights as they see fit. Often in these types of cases, individuals silently stand by as their rights are appropriated by the state. In his opinion, it is up to us, as defenders of religious freedom, to never silently stand by. 

Odacyr Prigol closed the session immediately without questions due to time constraints.