On the Brazilian New Advocacy for International Religious Freedom
Author: André Simão Santos
October 12, 2020
At the end of his opening speech at the 75th UN General Assembly, the Brazilian president, last September 22, made “an appeal to the entire international community for religious freedom and the fight against Christophobia.”
There was no explanation for the emphasis given to “Christophobia.”
Christians in Brazil are far from being a group subject to violent attacks or limitations on the exercise of their faith. Even in poor communities where criminal gangs exert control, Brazilian church leaders usually are not subject to extortion, threats, or violence, as they are in Colombia or Mexico, for instance, when seen as non-cooperative. Pastors and priests who oppose the regime are not victims of a government led-by stigmatization campaign, as they are in Nicaragua.
The main targets of religious intolerance in Brazil, instead, are non-Christian groups.
The press, in general, in the absence of a justification for the term “Christophobia,” interpreted the presidential speech as a nod to the evangelical electoral base. 1
However, the appeal indicates a new facet of Brazilian diplomacy, resulting from the launch, in February 2020, of the International Religious Freedom Alliance (IRF Alliance), led by the USA, to which Brazil joined with 25 other countries. The initiative seeks to foster diplomatic coordination between like-minded governments, to promote integrated actions to expand, in the world, respect for freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), and the protection of discriminated minorities.
The scourge of persecution against those with different beliefs remains enormous globally. Four-fifths of the world population live in 83 countries with “high” or “very high” restrictions on religious practices, as Pew Research Center reported. 2 As to 2017, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) found blasphemy laws in 71 countries, which use them to impose disproportionate criminal punishments raising from prison sentences to the death penalty. 3 Ten countries still maintain the death penalty for apostasy. Anti-blasphemy, anti-apostasy, and anti defamation laws are used to wrongfully imprison and punish individuals who hold divergent religious views from official narratives.
As to Christians, specifically, Open Doors estimates over 260 million live in places where they experience high persecution levels. In recent years, countries classified in the “extreme persecution” category have risen from one to eleven. In a year, around three thousand Christians were murdered for upholding their faith, others imprisoned or convicted without a fair trial, and almost ten thousand churches or related properties were attacked. 4
Religious persecution occurs in countries such as Pakistan, where Hindu and Christian girls from the age of 12 are abducted, subject to forced conversion, forced marriage, and rape, with no recourse for the family. China practices unrelenting assault on Muslim Uyghurs, Tibetan Buddhists, and Christians and expands electronic vigilance for that aim. Rohingya Muslims are subject to genocide by Burma (Myanmar)’s army. In Nigeria, Christians suffer at the hands of Boko Haram and Fulani militias. Christian minorities are harassed in the Middle East, some African countries, and Iran, where Baha’is are also targeted.
On the other hand, research shows that the promotion of religious pluralism can curb violent extremism and contribute to democracy, social and political stability, international security, women and children’s dignity, innovation, and economic development.
The US has taken the universal human right to religious freedom as a foreign policy priority, as described in the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998 and restated in recent documents, such as the Executive Order on Advancing International Religious Freedom of June 2, 2020. Among other provisions, said law created the position of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom and the Office on International Religious Freedom, within the Department of State, and USCIRF, an independent, bipartisan commission. Both USCIRF and the State Department prepare annual reports, and severe violators are recommended for designation as entities or countries of particular concern.
In such efforts, there is a care that the defense of religious freedom is made for all, thus avoiding an agenda motivated by preference, which could arouse a feeling of partiality, distrust, or hostility.
In July 2019, the US State Department hosted the II Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. It then started articulating a network of countries, the IRF Alliance, to share good practices and values, to stimulate other countries to create special offices to engage with religious freedom.
The IRF Alliance still only has a statement of principle, which states it “intends to advocate for freedom of religion or belief for all”, under the commitment “to pursuing an inclusive approach.” Moreover, it describes some potential instruments of action, such as “joint or co-ordinated bilateral demarches and public diplomacy” and “co-ordinated action using multilateral fora (e.g., joint statements, UN country resolutions, and UN mechanisms like the Universal Periodic Review) and support for the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief”.5
Brazil has joined the IRF Alliance with the ambition of becoming a central partner. So, what should be expected from the Brazilian new approach to promoting international religious freedom? There is no official information so far.
The Brazilian diplomatic tradition of cooperation and leadership suggests Brazil would pursue pacific solutions, prevail of human rights, and no intervention. It is unlikely that Brazil would impose sanctions (such as those prescribed for in the US Magnitsky Act) to authorities from China, India, Russia, Iran, or the Middle East. Still, Brazil can be a key player in the dialogue with such countries and especially with many others in the global South, which could present religious persecution issues. For example, Pyongyang has maintained an embassy in Brasilia since 2005. Furthermore, Brazil has participated in more than 50 peacekeeping operations and is present now in nine missions, most in Africa or the Middle East.
However, such tradition seems to have been abandoned so far by the current government. Brazil has been perceived recently as adopting a more confronting and defensive position, showing a push-back on the broad human rights agenda and taking sides with countries that fight against UN interference on internal issues. Brazilian credibility on human rights international fora is under suspicion, so perhaps little initiative should be awaited in the short term, besides being an auxiliary to US-led efforts on international religious freedom.
Brazil has no official religion since 1891 and, according to its constitution, shall not privilege any specific faith. However, Bolsonaro’s speech’s very final words stated that Brazil would be a “a Christian and conservative country,” ignoring the internal religious plurality and the aggression some religious minorities have suffered in Brazil since the enslavement period.
Brazilian real intentions, thus, might be challenged, under the mistrust that the new international religious freedom agenda would target internal political gains, or serve the missionary intents of one faith, if Brazil uses such an agenda (similarly to its new like-minded partner Hungary) exclusively to combat “Christophobia.”
A more plural and inclusive agenda on international religious freedom, addressing the practical needs of all and any religious minorities facing persecution around the world, seems to be a more effective and sustainable policy in the long term.
Finally, as a matter of coherence, Brazil must also apply more thoughtfully, in its internal problems, the IRF Alliance’s principles. That is, condemning violence (and incitement of violence) by non-state actors, demanding perpetrators be held to account, and promoting respect for diversity, tolerance, and inclusion through educational campaigns.
1 There is a distrust in Brazil regarding a possible preferential treatment granted by the president to specific evangelical sectors. For example, a few days after the UN speech, the president reiterated his promise to appoint, in 2021, a “terribly evangelical” pastor for Brazilian Supreme Court (STF) Justice. He made that promise initially in May 2019, right after the trial session in which the STF formed a majority to state that acts of discrimination against LGBT people could be punished under the same law that penalizes discrimination based on race, color, ethnicity, religion, or national origin, given the failure of the Congress to legislate.