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Animal Sacrifice and Religious Racism: Afro-Brazilian Religions on Trial
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Slavery left bloody wounds in Brazil, and prevalent racism prevents them from healing. National debates on animal rights— at first sight seemingly disconnected from racial issues—at a closer glance reveal the nefarious operations of discrimination against Black citizens.

In August 2018, I took part in a religious ritual in Salvador da Bahia. The orixá (Afro-Brazilian divinity) Oxumarê would receive offerings. Embodied both by the rainbow and the snake, Oxumarê is the divinity that fosters transformations. I’m an initiate of Bahian Candomblé, a religion with deep connections to West (Nigeria and Benin) and Central-South (Congo and Angola) Africa. A fundamental part of our rituals involves the propitiation of Afro-Brazilian divinities, often done through animal sacrifices in religious spaces (yards) called terreiros.

Terreiro Ilê Oba L’Okê in the Salvador Metropolitan Region. Source: Paula Fróes/CORREIO

Salvador da Bahia is the fourth largest Brazilian city, where more than eight people in every 10 are self- declared Black (preto and pardo). It is not by chance that the city has received the epithet of “Black Rome,” the “epicenter” of Afro-Brazilian religions. As the first Brazilian capital, the city is known for its colonial architecture, including hundreds of churches. However, more than Catholic churches, Salvador is also home to hundreds of Candomblé terreiros, some of them centuries old.

In one of the high points of the Oxumarê ritual in which I was partaking, a hundred or more people gathered in a semi-circle singing Yoruba songs. We were waiting for everyone to have a chance to prostrate in front of the goats that would be sacrificed that day. After bowing our heads in front of the animals—that had been washed and specially adorned with colorful ribbons for the occasion— we each touched our heads on the goats’ heads, one by one, thanking them for offering up their lives. Meanwhile the singing kept going around us.

When we finished paying homage to the animals, there came a decisive moment in the ritual. Each goat was offered a bunch of sacred leaves which they were free to accept or refuse. Only if the goat decided to eat the sacred leaves could the ritual continue towards the actual immolation. In case the animal refused to partake, this was a sign the goat should be freed. Sacrificing an animal against its will could never bring the positive effects our community expected. 

After the sacrifice, goat meat was shared among humans and the orixá at the function. Music, dancing, and offerings fed Oxumarê with vital force (axé). In turn, the divinity would transform adverse situations in our favor, affording us the power needed to keep our religious community alive. Ceremonies like these take place all over Brazil; Afro-Brazilian religions can be found from north to south in the country.

However, keeping religious communities alive is not an easy feat in a country like Brazil in which Candomblé faces heavy discrimination against. In fact, Afro-Brazilian religions were considered illegal in Brazil until a few decades ago. Religious freedoms were only guaranteed by law in the country after 1946. Unfortunately, challenges to Afro- Brazilian religions did not cease by federal decree. 

As soon as the religious ritual finished that August day, the Babalorixá (leader of the terreiro) rushed to a meeting with lawyers to discuss a court case about to be adjudicated in Brasília, the Brazilian capital. Due to the circumstances, many members of the terreiro could not even take part in the animal sacrifice. Over the previous years, racist attacks to Candomblé in general (and to our terreiro in particular) had led to the formation of what came to be called the GT Jurídico, a legal workgroup representing the interests of Afro-Brazilian religions.

A very important court case (for us) was about to be decided by the Brazilian Supreme Federal Court (STF). Known as Recurso Extraordinário (RE) 494601, the case had been initiated by the state attorney (Ministério Público) of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil’s southernmost state, which has a marked history of European colonization. They challenged the legality of a local law (Lei estadual 12.131/2004) implemented to guarantee Afro-Brazilian religious communities rights to perform animal sacrifices in that state. The attorney for Rio Grande do Sul took issue with such legislation, which they deemed to be incompatible with the State Code of Animal Protection (Código Estadual de Proteção aos Animais, Lei 11.915/2003), and to unfairly favor a small group of Brazilians, instead of catering to the common interest. 

After a court in that state ruled against the claim put forward by the attorney, and in support of Afro- Brazilians, the latter decided to appeal to the Supreme Federal Court. The outcome of the federal judgement would come to have a profound impact on Afro-Brazilian religious communities all over the country. Therefore, the GT Jurídico had been especially busy articulating strategies to help Afro-Brazilian religious communities with the case in Brasilia. 

One of the lawyers connected with the GT Jurídico in Salvador, Hédio Silva Junior, gave a remarkable speech in court. He raised the point that Brazil has the largest cattle farms in the world, killing vast numbers of animals every day to supply meat for domestic and foreign markets. Why then was the state attorney focused on raising a case against animal sacrifice in Afro-Brazilian rituals and not against large private companies? Why should it bother people so much that Afro-Brazilians are sacrificing goats for their rituals—even when they do so with outmost respect for the animal’s life—but these same people don’t seem bothered by the massive killings of animals in an industrial scale? Wasn’t the attorney himself wearing leather shoes in court, after all? Hédio Silva Junior gave one answer for these inconsistencies: religious racism. Finally, he argued that what would be desirable is for public officials to express more concern for Black lives in Brazilian suburban areas and favelas. Police brutality and the murdering of Black youth should be the subject of a court case, but it is not! Why? It was religious racism than turned animal sacrifice into a problem for Afro-Brazilian communities, he argued.

After the hearings, Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes requested the case to be suspended to allow for a more detailed analysis of the information available for the case. Before such request, however, Justice Marco Aurélio Mello had already voted against the petition from the state attorney of Rio Grande do Sul, and in favor of the legality of animal sacrifice in Afro-Brazilian religions. In his considerations, Mello affirmed that the state law protecting the right over animal sacrifice followed the spirit of the Brazilian Constitution in terms of religious freedom. In his remarks, he also highlighted that, to be legal, animal sacrifice for religious purposes should not be cruel. Finally, in his opinion, the sacrificial meat should be consumed by the religious community to justify the act.

Supreme Court Justice Edson Fachin was also able to pronounce his vote before the suspension of the case. Fachin considered that the Rio Grande do Sul law in question was not biased and unconstitutional for catering to the interests of Afro-Brazilians, considering that the issue of animal sacrifice affects this group more directly than others and racism is still a problem in Brazil. Therefore, he voted against the case raised by the state attorney but partially disagreed with Marco Aurélio Mello. Fachin did not see the need for the sacrificial meat to be consumed for the act be considered legal.

After the suspension of the proceedings, the judgement was only resumed in March 2019. Justice de Moraes, who had requested more time to evaluate the case, read the results of his in-depth examination, expressing his understanding that Lei estadual 12.131/2004, that upheld Afro-Brazilian religious sacrifice, followed the Brazilian Constitution. He also disagreed with Marco Aurélio Mello on the requirement that the sacrificial meat should necessarily be consumed by the religious community.

Justice Luis Roberto Barroso also voted against the state attorney, explaining that after the hearings he was convinced that Afro-Brazilian religious communities treated animal lives with the utmost respect, using ancestral techniques to assure as much of a quick and painless death as possible for the animals. He stated, “According to their faith, it is only when the sacrifice promotes no suffering that their religious objectives are achieved.” In his concluding remarks, Barroso affirmed, “We are not speaking of animal sacrifice for the sake of entertainment, but as a fundamental element required for the exercise of a constitutional right: religious freedom.”

 Justice Rosa Weber also considered that the need for a state legislation tailored for the protection of Afro-Brazilian religious rights followed the same logic as other affirmative action laws. Weber observed that Afro-Brazilian religions continue to be targets of intolerance, prejudice, and stigma in the country —particularly due to their religious practice of animal sacrifice.

Meanwhile, Justice Luiz Fux, affirmed that he could only see one positive aspect in that court case, if any. In Fux’s opinion, it was about time for the Supreme Court to make a clear statement in support of Afro-Brazilian practices. In his words: “With this case, the Supreme Court aims to put an end to the scaling violence and attacks against Afro-Brazilian religious communities.”

Finally, Justices Carmen Lúcia and Dias Toffoli both voted along with their other colleagues in the Supreme Court, against the case raised by the state attorney of Rio Grande do Sul. In her speech, Lúcia cited other instances in which Afro-Brazilian practices have been persecuted and made illegal based on racial discrimination. In particular, she remembered that even Brazilian samba was once deemed illegal due to the race of those producing it. No longer should Brazil continue in this path of intolerance towards Afro-Brazilian cultures and religions, she said. 

Religious groups take part in public hearings at the Brazilian Commission for Human Rights and Minorities. Source: Câmara dos Deputados/Fernando Bola

Members of several Afro-Brazilian religious communities had traveled to Brasília to follow the case. Some could be seen wearing traditional Yoruba clothing in court. Many others who couldn’t access the courtroom waited anxiously outside. As the judgement passed in favor of Afro-Brazilian rights, drumming and praise songs to the orixás could be heard outside the court. Most of them were praising orixá Xangô, the divinity in charge of political power, justice and fire.

This could seem like a happy ending to an extended debate in Brazil involving animal rights, religion and race relations. Nevertheless, racism does not cease to produce its effects even when court decisions are made in favor of Afro-Brazilian religions. The very fact that terreiros feel the need to constitute and maintain legal workgroups, such as the GT Jurídico, speaks of a situation in which Afro-Brazilian communities are forced to “speak the language of the colonizers” to guarantee their survival. Even if these communities continue to thrive in the country, the deleterious effects of racism can be felt every time that a religious leader feels compelled to turn his attention away from the orixás to attend to lawyers, judges and politicians. 

Meanwhile, back in the terreiro, just a couple of days after the religious sacrifice to Oxumarê—which I described in the opening paragraphs—our religious community gathered again. This time, we performed a required ritual after every sacrifice in Candomblé. This ceremony reassured the orixás of our gratitude for the spiritual and material nourishment we had received from the animal sacrifice. We also asked that the axé obtained from feeding Oxumarê would give us the necessary power to foster a much-needed transformations in our racist country. After all, even the goats offered up their lives towards that goal.


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