During the reign of Brazilian ex-president Jair Bolsonaro, evangelical missionaries significantly increased in the Brazilian region of Vale do Javari. They mainly tried to reach and spread the faith among the indigenous communities of the Brazilian Amazon forest, who often do not care about the Holy Scriptures. The discovery was made some time ago by the Brazilian investigative server O Joio eo Trigo.
For context: the Vale do Javari region belongs to the Brazilian state of Amazonas and covers 8.5 million hectares of land. It is home to the world’s largest community of indigenous people who live in complete isolation – six thousand people who belong to 26 ethnic groups, 19 of which live completely outside the surrounding events.
But evangelical missionaries do not only move in the region in the immediate neighborhood of Colombia and Peru. Often, foreigners who try to spread the faith among indigenous communities have been moving for decades in other parts of the Amazon as well.
Evangelicals in government
According to Brazilian journalists of the O Joio eo Trigo website, the growing number of evangelical missionaries was a direct result of Bolsonaro’s policies in the Amazon. Its main goal was to open the territory of the largest rainforest in the world to the agricultural lobby and to “civilize” the indigenous communities there.
“Since his political beginnings, Bolsonaro has been associated with evangelical groups, either personally or financially. He also relied on them (evangelicals) a lot during his election campaign and gave them a free hand, including in relation to the Indian population,” explains František Kalenda, an anthropologist and expert on Brazil, for Nauzal.
After his election success, the “Brazilian Trump” repaid the evangelical groups by appointing their members to key government posts. Among other things, he also joined the government organization for the protection of indigenous people, Funai, where he began to promote his own interests.
“Bolsonaro, like many others, including the Ministry of the Environment, emptied the staff of this institution and installed people who were often missionaries themselves… After that, they could not be expected to fulfill their purpose. It was not in their interest,” says Kalenda.
The extreme right-wing ex-president thus gave – in terms of personnel and finances – limited authorities headed by these representatives a free hand for their actions.
For example, lawyer and evangelical pastor Damares Alves, whose daughter happens to be an adopted girl and a native of the village of Kamayurá in the state of Mato Grosso, became a member of the government and minister for women, families and human rights. How a woman in her twenties became a minister at the age of six remains a matter of debate. According to Brazilian media, her parents did not agree to the girl’s adoption. There are also no documents to record the adoption. The minister defends that she did not kidnap her daughter.
However, in connection with Alves, the Brazilian media also drew attention to her connection to evangelical missionary groups at the time when she was a minister in the period from 2019 to 2022.
- Evangelicals have a relatively long history in Brazil and more than a century of tradition. They are part of an offshoot of Protestant churches and there are hundreds of them around the world. Each has its own theology and practice.
- These Pentecostal and New Pentecostal churches pay great attention to missionary activity and are mostly very conservative. They often operate primarily with the figure of the Holy Spirit.
- Such things as exorcism typically appear in their practice. It also always depends a lot on the personality of the local pastor.
- Their base is mainly the USA, says anthropologist František Kalenda for Nauzal.
Help and give
There are various ways in which evangelical missionaries try to gain the favor of local communities.
According to the investigation, the missionaries try to get closer to the indigenous communities by learning the local language, creating grammar manuals and dictionaries. However, they subsequently use the knowledge mainly to translate the Bible and preach its teachings.
The leader of the Kanamari tribe, Kuna Kanamari, described his own experience with them some time ago for journalists from Al-Jazeera. “Evangelicals come here and promise young people a better life and use them as guides to spread their teachings,” he described. He added, however, that they are not always welcome.
Likewise Eiliesio Marubo. A lawyer and one of the main representatives of the younger generation of indigenous people from the Vale do Javari region. “We are seeing an increasing presence (of evangelical missionaries) of different teachings… They are mainly trying to establish contact with some of the natives who live in the city, offering them money and benefits,” he said.
However, according to him, some missionaries also wanted to reach communities that consciously completely isolate themselves from the rest of the world. “We have information that the tribes from Vale to Javari were offered 20 thousand dollars to accompany them (missionaries) to the territory where the isolated tribes are located,” he further described.
The current preacher and native Nakwa Mayoruna also has experience with evangelical missionaries. He described to Vice that he accepted the faith more than ten years ago. “I dyed my hair, I dressed differently. I was a typical face-painting aboriginal. I used frog poison as my father taught me. But today I understand that all this is sinful. Adultery, fornication. Today I am changed by God,” he testified.
While he previously worked mainly with American missionaries, today he wants to spread the faith in his own way. “The missionaries who come want to manipulate us… The goal of the Americans was to take what is here and take it away. That’s not what we’re after,” he continued. He emphasized that he finds it important to preserve their own language.
The anthropologist Kalenda also describes what is the goal of the missionaries heading to the Amazon. “To a certain extent, it is a naive view that there are groups of people who still have not had the opportunity to encounter the word of God. It fulfills the Western idea of savages who need to meet him to be civilized, because they live in a primitive state of mind after all,” he explains.
In addition, many missionaries find the idea of converting indigenous communities very “attractive”. “Those missionaries think they are spreading the word of God, and it has a huge symbolic power for them. The idea that they could convert someone completely outside of civilization to the faith,” he adds.
At the same time, contact with indigenous communities is strongly regulated in the Amazon and, in some cases, completely prohibited for tribes that have the right to live in isolation. Compliance with these laws, among others, fell under the competence of the government’s Funai.
Anthropologist Kalenda emphasizes that the ban on contact with the world is not a passive decision by the state, but often a conscious decision by the indigenous communities themselves.
Converted to the faith
According to anthropologist František Kalenda, who repeatedly visited the Brazilian Amazon, the strategy of evangelical missionaries in their approach to the native inhabitants depends on whether or not they had contact with civilization before.
“About 99 percent of the Indian population, which numbers about a million people, in Brazil live in Indian territories, in cities and have contact with civilization to varying degrees. For example, they have the Internet, they know about the world around them, they learn or speak Portuguese and they know that missionaries exist. They therefore get to them easily – perhaps under the pretext of a study trip, academic research, to learn the original language. Then they integrate into the community – very often by getting married or having children – they start creating a community, spreading the word of God.”
“It is more difficult to penetrate isolated tribes. These are mainly trips by helicopter, which missionaries often take, or by boat to very remote parts of the Amazon rainforest. It is reminiscent of the 16th and 17th century journeys when missionaries would come and start handing out gifts, modern items and trying to buy the locals. Sometimes there are even reports in the Brazilian media that, for example, they are trying to take local children away to raise them in the city and then send them back again.”
According to Kalenda, the most “susceptible” to adopt the faith are indigenous communities that are strongly uprooted or those in a bad “economic situation”.
“Here is the effort of these missionaries to offer something to the locals and they present it in such a way that they can offer economic power. Part of these theologies is the so-called theology of prosperity – ‘If you join us, God will reward you and you will prosper in life’.”
Hope in the younger generation
In recent years, mainly the younger generation of indigenous leaders have been trying to fight against evangelical missionaries who often operate without permission. One of them is the aforementioned lawyer Eiliesio Marubo.
He decided to file a complaint with the Supreme Court about the presence of some missionaries in Vale do Javari, because, according to him, they did not have permission to stay in the region. He succeeded in court and the three accused were banned from entering their (Indian) protected lands.
The lawsuit was filed against missionary Andrew Tonkin of the Frontier International Church. Accusations that he tried to gain access to isolated communities, but this American denies. “We respect governments until they speak against the word of God. (…) God’s word is above all,” he said about the case in a statement to Brazilian journalists. According to the website Reportér Brasil, he “served Jesus Christ” in Iraq this summer.
Missionary and pilot Wilson Kannenberg of the evangelical church Asas de Socorro (Salvation Wings) was also accused of trying to infiltrate isolated tribes. The latter states that it focuses on missionary education and logistical assistance by plane. Kannenberg wanted to reach out to the indigenous people during the covid-19 pandemic, when infection threatened to spell doom for communities without the necessary immunity. However, he also defends himself against the accusation.
The Vice station, on the other hand, recalls the case of the third accused, Josiah McIntyre. But he also denied that he would ever try to reach the isolated tribes. He told journalists that in the Vale do Javari region, he helps local children learn, for example, mathematics, but also the teachings of Christ. He rejects the fact that he would try to change their culture and sees his accusation as political.
“Brazil’s Indian population has been strongly mobilizing in recent years. Self-confidence is growing in her circles, they are active on social networks, in the streets, but also in the courts, where they file lawsuits. It is mainly about members of the younger generation… there is a growing awareness among them of their own identity and an effort to strengthen it in a certain way,” comments anthropologist Kalenda on the growing desire for justice among the younger generation.
The current president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, also set greater protection of the indigenous population as one of his priorities.
“Current President Lula is trying to restructure government agencies and ministries in such a way that they are staffed by people who really care about the protection of indigenous peoples. For example, people of Indian origin are appearing for the first time in Funai… So there is a change, but it is a long-term process and it is impossible to say with certainty whether it is already manifesting itself,” he adds.