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Legal framework on freedom of religion and actual application

Freedom of belief and worship is guaranteed in articles five and 19 of the current Brazilian constitution, promulgated in 1988. Law No. 7716 of 1989 establishes as a crime discrimination based on race, colour, ethnicity, religion or nationality. Public policies aimed at combating discrimination began with racial issues, followed by gender and, more recently, religious issues. Since 1989, there has been a federal agency responsible for implementing public policies against discrimination (current Ministry of Human Rights). In 2015, the Office of Religious Diversity and Human Rights was created, a public agency dedicated to religious discrimination.

However, with the federal government and many state governments facing financial crisis, these public agencies defending religious freedom have been downsized or closed. For example, in 2016 the Centre for the Promotion of Religious Freedom and Human Rights was closed in Rio de Janeiro, the state with the largest problems concerning religious intolerance. Its services were assumed by other bodies which defend human rights.[1]

In addition, Brazil continues to see conflicts at a governmental level regarding the concept of secularism and its application in public policy. The dispute is similar to that found in other Western countries and is mainly concerned with topics such as abortion, gay marriage and confessional religious education.[2] An issue came up concerning the growing presence of Neo-Pentecostal missionaries in prisons. This is prompting advocates of secularism to call for rules that limit the presence of religious ministers in Brazilian penitentiaries.[3]

In the case of confessional religious education, the Supreme Court, responding to an action by the Federal Prosecutor’s Office, decided that religious education in Brazilian public schools may be confessional in nature, reflecting the various religions present in Brazil.[4]

Certain social controversies are not intrinsically religious in nature. That said, they are affected by religious issues and generate renewed antagonism among religious groups. They tend to deepen in response to the increased political polarisiation taking place in Brazil, prompted by political corruption scandals. One of the strongest legislative groups is the “Bullet, Beef and Bible” caucus, with electoral support from evangelical Churches and linked to large political interest groups.[5]


During the period covered by this report, two studies with quantitative data on religious intolerance in Brazil were published: the report from the Human Rights and Religious Diversity Office of the Ministry of Human Rights[6], with data from 2011 to 2015, and another from Dial 100[7] (a national system that receives complaints by phone), with data from 2011 to 2016. In both cases, the variation in the number of occurrences recorded over the years mainly reflects the degree of the population’s awareness about the matter in question. This in turn depends heavily on the existence of awareness campaigns.[8]

Throughout the period under review, the most attacked religious community was the Afro-Brazilian. Depending on the source of the data, this community represents about 41.5 percent to 63.3 percent of the victims who gave their religion when registering their complaint, although Afro-Brazilians are only 0.3 percent of the country’s total population.[9] Comparatively, the number of attacks on small religious communities considered esoteric (Wicca, Stregheria, Santo Daime, etc.) is also high. These communities suffered about 4 percent of the attacks in 2016. In their case, they make up less than 0.4 percent of the population.

Recently, Muslims have also been attacked frequently – 0.71 percent of the attacks in 2016, despite being only 0.02 percent of the population.[10] The Dial 100 statistics report, for this period, only three cases of intolerance in relation to Judaism. This data bank does not give details about the incidents, only that there was a complaint. It represents 0.4 percent of the total cases registered in the Dial 100. Jews represent 0.5 percent of the Brazilian population. In conclusion, the Jewish community reports a relatively low number of complaints of religious harassment.

The most frequent attacks are of two types: (1) verbal or physical aggression against people who are important and recognised in their religious community or who carry religious props and symbols; (2) vandalism of sacred spaces and destruction of religious objects. Personal assaults are most common in public areas or in the victim’s own house.[11]

Cases of discrimination in the workplace have been frequently reported in Brazil. Generally, victims are employees who wear religious garments and vestments (such as white clothing and ornaments in the case of Afro-Brazilian religions and veils in the case of Muslims). In the city of Mesquita, in Rio de Janeiro State, a young man was immediately dismissed when he went to work in the City Hall dressed in traditional Afro-Brazilian vestments and wearing other religious ornaments.[12]

According to followers of Afro-Brazilian religions, criminal organisations have carried out an increasing number of attacks against them in recent years. The problem dates back to the 1990s, but it was hardly visible as the victims were afraid to report the attacks. Recently, however, occurrences are becoming more frequent and visible. They report that former gang members and drug dealers, that they have converted to neo-Pentecostal religions, and that they prohibit the practice of Afro-Brazilian religions in areas dominated by their former organisations.[13]

Although they are not very common, cases of religious discrimination in the media regularly take place in Brazil. By 2015, two TV networks were convicted for exhibiting shows offensive to Afro-Brazilian religions.[14] In 2016, an Evangelical newspaper was denounced for publishing an article titled “Names of the Demons and in what area of life they act”, describing some demons with names of entities related to Afro-Brazilian religions.[15] Also in that year in Brazil, Google was ordered to remove 23 videos taken from a channel entitled “Murderous Islamism”, for instigating intolerance and religious persecution.[16]

Acts of religious persecution against indigenous tribes are rare and are generally associated with land demarcation issues. Attacks on places of worship, in these cases, has the purpose of scaring and forcing the departure of the indigenous populations from their territories, as happened with the Pankará people, in the Serra do Arapuá, Northeastern Brazil.[17]

Cases of intolerance and religious discrimination have often reflected problems of understanding and application of the principles of the secular state, at a time of great political and social antagonism in Brazil. For example, in the city of Londrina, southern Brazil, during the celebrations of Independence Day (7th September) of 2016, there was a theatre play that included a representation of Afro-Brazilian religions. A city councilor posted on Facebook: “MACUMBA IN FRONT OF THE CITY COUNCIL. If it was a Christian service or a Mass, these same people would now be yelling that the State is secular.” The comment was considered discriminatory because “macumba” is a pejorative term to refer to Afro-Brazilian religions and the cultural manifestation was not a religious service.[18]

On the other hand, the councilor’s comment conveys a perception, real or imagined, of the existence of veiled discrimination against Christian religions by saying that if the play included a representation of a Christian service, then people would immediately protest in the name of secularism. With the process of growing polarisation underway in Brazilian society, traditional Christian groups and extremists can assume intolerant and aggressive attitudes toward other religions, particularly against Afro-Brazilians. As anthropologist, João Baptista Borges Pereira, a retired professor at the University of São Paulo, observes, a religion “may be intolerant because it wants to dominate or because it is a victim of intolerance”. [19]

During the period under review, the federal government carried out three initiatives to combat religious intolerance: the national campaign “Sons of Brazil” to combat violence and religious intolerance (2016), also the combat against religious intolerance was the theme for the National High School Exam (2016), and the National Day to Combat Religious Intolerance (21st January) was observed. In Brazil there are also frequent activities in defence of religious freedom promoted by inter-faith groups that congregate Catholics, Evangelicals, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, spiritualists and members of Afro-Brazilian religions.[20]

In this period, an embarrassing situation occurred involving Father Fábio de Melo, a priest and singer who is very well-known in Brazilian social media. Speaking at a Mass, and subsequently available on YouTube, he made speeches considered offensive to the Afro-Brazilian religions. He referred to them using the pejorative term “macumba” and declared that he could even eat the foods offered to the deity in the rituals – a gesture considered a profanation by the faithful of these religions. This incident came at a time when the Catholic hierarchy in Brazil has been speaking out against violence and religious intolerance towards Afro-Brazilian religions. Father Fábio de Melo eventually apologised on Twitter  and pledged to dialogue with believers who felt offended.[21]

Prospects for freedom of religion

A general overview of religious freedom in Brazil retains the same characteristics observed in the previous period under review (2014-16). These are: (1) fragility of Afro-Brazilian religious communities, (2) violence against Muslims, although this is rare because they make up a small proportion of the population, (3) greater aggressiveness by Neo-Pentecostal communities towards other religions.

The main changes that occurred in this context can be attributed to the current economic, political and moral crisis. The lack of financial resources tends to reduce investment in social programmes intended to defend human rights. This is all the more applicable to areas where the local population has little awareness of religious freedom problems. On the other hand, the growing polarisation of society tends to involve religious groups. This in turn causes increasing conflict both within the faith communities themselves and between them and the state.

Brazil is not a country with serious religious conflict, but the current data indicates that economic and political developments are having an impact on the importance being attached to fundamental human rights. This is a trend that will almost certainly continue in the foreseeable future.

Endnotes / Sources

[1] KOINONIA. Centros que atendem vítimas de intolerância religiosa estão fechados. Dossiê Intolerância Religiosa, March 9, 2016. Available from (accessed 28th April 2018)

[2] Examples:

OLIVEIRA, Amanda. Câmara aprova PEC que proíbe aborto mesmo em casos de estupro. Capricho, 9th November 2017. Available from (accessed 28th April 2018)

MORAES, Camila. A militante anti-aborto recrutada por Temer para a Secretaria de Mulheres. El Pais, 2nd June 2016. Available from (accessed 28th April 2018)

CONSULTOR JURÍDICO. Para a AGU, cabe ao Congresso decidir sobre aborto até a 12ª semana. Revista Consultor Jurídico, 12 de abril de 2017. Available from (accessed 28th April 2018)

[3] ALVIM, Mariana. Evangélicos marcam território dentro dos presídios do Rio. O Globo, 26th May 2016.Avaliable from  (accessed 28th April 2018)

[4] SIQUEIRA, Rafael. STF conclui julgamento sobre ensino religioso nas escolas públicas. Jus Brasil, 27 de setembro de 2018. Available from (accessed 28th April 2018)

[5] CAVALCANTI, Roxana P. How Brazil’s far right became a dominant political force. The Conversation, 25 de janeiro de 2017.  Available from (accessed 28th April 2018)

[6] FONSECA, Alexandre B. et al. Relatório sobre intolerância e violência religiosa no Brasil (2011-2015): resultados preliminares. Brasília: Secretaria Especial de Direitos Humanos, SDH/PR, 2016.

[7] SECRETARIA DE DIREITOS HUMANOS – DISQUE 100. Dados de Denúncias – Discriminação Religiosa – Nacional. Brasília, January 16, 2018. Available from (accessed 28th April 2018)

[8] RESK, Felipe et al. Brasil registra uma denúncia de intolerância religiosa a cada 15 horas. O Estado de S.Paulo, November 12, 2017. Available from,brasil-registra-uma-denuncia-de-intolerancia-religiosa-a-cada-15-horas,70002081286. (accessed 28th April 2018)

[9] Values obtained from the crossing of the data found in the aforementioned papers.


[11] FONSECA, Alexandre B. et al. Op. cit.

[12] CARVALHO, Janaina. Polícia apura se intolerância religiosa causou demissão em prefeitura no RJ.  G1 Rio, 06 de maio de 2016. Available from (accessed 28th April 2018)

[13] GONÇALVES, Juliana. Ataques a religiões de matriz africana fazem parte da nova dinâmica do tráfico no Rio.  The Intercept Brasil, September 20, 2017. Available from (accessed 28th April 2018)

[14] IG GENTE. Record e Rede Mulher são condenadas por ofender religiões afro-brasileiras. Portal IG, 12th May 2015. Available from (accessed 28th April 2018)

[15] KOINONIA. Jornal é denunciado por intolerância religiosa ao comparar exus a demônios. Dossiê Intolerância Religiosa, 7th October 2016. Available from (accessed 28th April 2018)

[16] JORNAL DO BRASIL. MPF: Google é condenada por vídeos de intolerância religiosa na Internet. Jornal do Brasil, May 26, 2016. Available from Access on April 28, 2018

[17] KOINONIA. Incêndio criminoso destrói Casa Sagrada do povo Pankará. Dossiê Intolerância Religiosa, 7th April 2016. Available from (accessed 28th April 2018)

[18] SILVA, Auber. Londrina: vereador eleito é denunciado criminalmente por incitar discriminação religiosa. Bonde News, December 16, 2016. Available from (accessed 28th April 2018)

[19] RESK, Felipe et al. Op. cit.

[20] Examples::

CONIB. Encontro inédito no Brasil reúne judeus e muçulmanos para cerimônia religiosa de Iftar. Confederação Israelita do Brasil, 04 de julho de 2016. Disponível em (accessed 28th April 2018)

IGREJA DE JESUS CRISTO DOS SANTOS DOS ÚLTIMOS DIAS. Jantar Inter-Religioso organizado pela Igreja celebra a Liberdade de Crença no Brasil em 2016. Sala de Imprensa Mórmon, 1 de dezembro de 2016. Disponível em (accessed 28th April 2018)

MOVIMENTO DOS FOCOLARE. Um encontro inter-religioso para dialogar sobre a misericórdia. Movimento dos Focolare, 01 de novembro de 2016. Disponível em (accessed 28th April 2018)

[21] KOINONIA. Padre Fábio de Melo dá declaração polêmica sobre macumba: “se tiver fresco, a gente come”. Dossiê Intolerância Religiosa, 10th May 2018. Disponível em (accessed 28th April 2018)

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