Brazil is a federal republic, established as a Democratic State of Law. This form of government follows the principle of separation of powers.
The Constitution is the highest-ranking norm; however, it is worth noting that human rights treaties have received constitutional status, even though this is not expressly stated.
Currently there are different provisions recognizing and protecting religious freedom, not only at the constitutional level. Below is a brief mention of the most relevant regulatory framework:
Figure 1: Religious Freedom – Main legal framework
Freedom of religion
|Places of worship / Patrimonial Regime||Religious
|Military Service/Spiritual attention Armed Forces|
|Decree Law No. 5,452
Decree Law No. 253/2009
Decree N° 1,041
Ley N ° 6.015
Law N° 8239
General Description of the State of Religious Freedom
Regarding the relationship between the Church and State, the Constitution prohibits federal, state, and local governments from either supporting or hindering any specific religion, and also obliges them to respect all religious denominations. Nevertheless, for some time now, there has been a greater presence and participation by religious leaders and groups – especially from Protestant Christian denominations – in the public and political sphere, a phenomenon called the evangelical power. This has been more notorious during the current presidential term of Jair Bolsonaro, the first president with an openly Christian discourse, who is supported by an important neo-Pentecostal church in the country, the Kingdom of God Universal Church.
The president explicitly placed his mandate under God’s supervision, using for his campaign slogan: “Brazil above all, God above all”. This, alongside the strong presence of evangelicals in the majority of the country’s political parties, their well-known political force during elections, and the appointment of Christians in key positions, such as the Ministry of the Family, Women and Human Rights, and the National Indian Foundation, has led to criticism and claims that the country is not really secular or non-denominational. Overall, the president’s approach to some Christian denominations has led to the claim of religious minorities, of not being properly represented, nor having the same space in the public sphere.
Even though the number of Catholics in the country is greater than that of other Christian denominations, there is no doubt that the Protestant sector is on the rise. Within religious minorities, are those who practice candomblé and Umbandá, among others. Adherents of these Afro-Brazilian religions have repeatedly denounced cases of discrimination and religious intolerance by some Protestant Christian groups, especially by neo-Pentecostal groups.
Despite or perhaps due to the influence of some religious denominations in the country, especially the Christian denomination, citizens and secular groups have shown a clear rejection of the space granted to religious groups in public space. Similarly, criminal groups, especially in the most neglected areas, exert pressure and/or violence on members of religious communities. Among the main restrictions, we can refer to:
A. Hostility to religious expressions by state and non-state actors
There is an increasing presence and influence of the Christian religion in the country. This has led to greater rejection by secular groups and other minorities, such as LGBT groups, and the demand to limit the participation of religious leaders – especially Christians – in the public sphere under the principle of Church-State separation.
Christians enjoy many spaces where they can manifest their faith-based points of view. However, they face insults, criticism, and other verbal attacks when they speak about life, family, marriage, and the binary sex under the Christian doctrine, whether at school or work. Minority groups, such as LGBT, often portray religious messages – especially by Christians – as discriminatory, and the right to conscientious objection can be questioned in the health field if medical personnel does not perform certain procedures because of their beliefs, or even if they conduct treatment such as conversion therapies. Temples of worship have also been vandalized as a result of religious intolerance.
In addition, the evangelization work carried out by Christian missionary groups in indigenous communities is frequently criticized and branded as cultural ethnocide. Indigenous organizations and other organizations in civil society condemn this type of practice as they consider it an outrage to the uses and customs of indigenous peoples. Even though this criticism may be valid, as in some situations it could be interpreted as a lack of respect towards indigenous cultures, it is important to recognize freedom of religion, including the possibility of conversion within indigenous communities.
B. The regulation of religion by organized crime
Brazil is also home to criminal groups and gangs, located and operating in different areas of the country, including favelas and borders. Since Jair Bolsonaro took over the Presidency, the gangs have increased levels of confrontation as the new government’s promise to end the cartels was interpreted as a threat to criminal stability. In this context, the criminal groups turned into targets of threats and attacks on the leaders and members of churches that openly supported Jair Bolsonaro during his political campaign, as such support made them somehow “responsible” for ending impunity for their criminal activities. Hence, Christians and Christian places of worship became targets of retaliation.
However, among the territories co-opted by criminal groups, gang members are not indifferent to religious phenomenon; some evangelical gang members are ex-prisoners, who converted to Christianity in prison to improve their conditions, and upon leaving, adopted a radical stance against followers of other beliefs. “Evangelical gang members linked the discourse of religious warfare with the war over power in drug trafficking itself”. In this context, Afro-Brazilian religions, Christian Catholics, and even Jehovah’s Witnesses face risks. Worship temples are attacked and/or vandalized, religious leaders are harassed and threatened unless they abandon their faith. Most of the time, they are prevented from entering their neighborhoods to evangelize. It is important to highlight that this is not the position of the protestant, or of all evangelical churches, it is an interpretation problem of evangelical doctrine by criminal groups seriously affecting other religious minorities.
Violent Incidents Database
The Violent Incident Database (VID) is a service by the Observatory of Religious Freedom in Latin America, designed to collect, record, and analyze violent incidents related to violations of religious freedom.
In many cases, the limitations on religious freedom previously explained have led to violent incidents in the country, both against religious leaders or religious groups, and even against places of worship, among others.
The following cases reported on the platform, illustrate the state of religious freedom in the country:
- Christian Political leader receives death threats: The Federal Police has reported that the Minister of Women, Family and Human Rights, Damares Alves has received death threats. She is one of the most popular figures in the government, and is an evangelical pastor. She has been relentless in her fight against pedophilia and organized crime. She has also clearly expressed the government’s opposition to abortion.
- A temple of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God vandalized: A temple of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God was vandalized by opponents of presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro (PSL). The terms “secular state” and “Not him” were painted on the wall of one of the headquarters of the religious denomination. This happened after the leader of the Church manifested his support for Jair Bolsonaro, the winner of the presidential elections.
Figure 2: Violent incidents reported in Brazil (2017-2019)
|(Attempts) to destroy, vandalize or desecrate places of worship or religious buildings||4||11||8|
|Closed places of worship or religious buildings||0||0||2|
|Other forms of attack (physical or mental abuse)||3||4||3|
|Attacked houses/property of faith adherents||1||1||0|
|Attacked shops, businesses or institutions of faith adherents||0||0||0|
|Forced to leave Home||0||0||0|
|Forced to leave Country||0||0||0|
Information and/or data from previous years can be found on our Violent Incidents Database
|World Watch List, Open Doors International (2020)||Private sphere||n.d.|
|Global Uptick in Government Restrictions on Religion in 2016
Pew Research Center (2018)
|Government Restrictions Index||1.4|
|Social Hostilities Index (SHI)||3.5|
|Government religious preference, Religious Characteristics of States Data Project
Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion (2015)
|Government Religious Preference composite score – preferred religion (PRFGRP)||2.2|
|Government Religious Preference composite score – non-preferred religion (NPRFGRP)||1.5|
|The Main Religion and State Dataset
Religion and State Project, Bar-Ilan University (2014)
|Official Religion (SAX)||No|
|Official Support (SBX)||Supportive: The state supports all religions more or less equally.|
|Religious Discrimination Against Minority Religions (MXX)||5|
|Regulation of and Restrictions on the Majority Religion or All Religions (NXX)||3|
|Specific Types of Religious Support (LXX)||5|
Religion and State Project, Bar-Ilan University (2014)
|Discrimination, harassment, acts of prejudice and violence against minority religions: General (WSOCDISX2014)||13|
|Minority actions of Discrimination, harassment, acts of prejudice and violence – Against the majority religion (WMIN2MAJX2014)||1|
|Minority actions of Discrimination, harassment, acts of prejudice and violence – Against the other minority religions (WMIN2MINX2014)||6|
|Societal regulation of religion (WSOCREGX2014)||0|
|CIRI Human Rights Data Project (2011)||Freedom of religion (NEW_RELFRE)||2|
|Religion and State-Minorities Dataset
Religion and State Project, Bar-Ilan University (2014)
|Governmental Discrimination (MMXX2014)
|International Religious Freedom Data
The Association of Religion Date Archives (2008)
|Government Regulation of Religion Index (GRI_08)||0.6|
|Government Favoritism of Religion Index (GFI_08)||0.7|
|Social Regulation of Religion Index (MSRI_08)||5.0|
|Religious Freedom Rating
Hudson Institute (2007)
|Religious Freedom Scale||2|
For more data about the indicators click here.
Public Policy Recommendations
- The government should recognize and identify religious leaders/groups as a special category of vulnerable people in areas infiltrated by criminal groups. To do so, it could request the production and availability of information on this subject not only by national and international civil society organizations but also by the corresponding Brazilian state entities, in order to fully comply with their obligations concerning the protection of human rights.
- The government should implement more mechanisms for dialogue and participation that allow the voice of the different religious denominations to be heard in the public sphere so that they all feel equally represented.
- In addition, the government should work alongside various civil society organizations, as well as with the different religious groups, in order to collect and analyze pertinent information that allows the recognition and due attention of the majority of cases of religious discrimination throughout the territory.