Evangelical missionaries move into Amazon villages
By Terry Wade
SAO PAULO, Brazil (Reuters) – It takes days of travel by
boat and foot to reach indigenous tribes deep in Brazil’s
Amazon rainforest, but that hasn’t stopped evangelical
Christian missionaries from countries like Germany and South
Korea from descending on hundreds of Indian villages.
Unlike Portuguese conquerors five centuries ago, the new
proselytizers say they aim to help with medical and social
services more than to convert the animist tribes to
The missionaries sometimes strip down to loincloths so they
fit in better and even search for tribes that have never before
made contact with the outside world.
But they often lack the permission of Brazil’s government,
which is now trying to regain control of the activity. Many
anthropologists fear the missionaries will harm indigenous
people by weakening native culture and religion and by exposing
them to new germs and illnesses.
“I’ve been visiting Roraima since last year,” Choi Yang
Sook, a South Korean Presbyterian missionary said, referring to
one of Brazil’s six Amazon states. “Lots of missionaries!”
Some foreign missionaries work with Indians near big
cities, others with the isolated Amazon tribes. Still others
hope to reach tribes that have had no contact whatsoever with
the outside world and save them from clashes with advancing
loggers or farmers while also trying to avoid passing deadly
Many offer services like dental and health care. While they
say they don’t try to convert Indians to Christianity, they
often expose Indians to Christian teachings, sometimes even
translating the Bible into native languages.
DEATH BY SHUNNING VS. MODERN MEDICINE
But critics say a weak Brazilian state has left the 215
known tribes vulnerable to the outreach efforts of
evangelicals, however well-intentioned they may be. They fear
oral history, origin myths and native religions will be lost.
“The Surui no longer worship shamans because missionaries
told them it was bad. That’s a terrible, immense cultural
loss,” said Ivaneide Cardozo, a board member at Kaninde, a
nonreligious group in Rondonia state.
Christian groups say the government is acting irresponsibly
and that its policies prevent it from intervening even in
life-or-death situations involving tribespeople. In an effort
to protect indigenous culture, many government officials do not
want to introduce outside influences in tribal villages
including food and medicine.
“This relativist stance violates the human rights of Indian
children all over Brazil,” said Braulia Ribeiro, who heads the
Brazilian chapter of the international missionary group Youth
With A Mission, known as Jocum by its Portuguese acronym.
Her group, one of the biggest, is in battle with the
government for having taken two children from the Suruwaha
tribal village in the Amazon state of Rondonia to get medical
treatment in Sao Paulo, allegedly without obtaining permission
from the government’s Indian affairs agency Funai.
One has cerebral palsy and the other is a hermaphrodite.
Suruwaha parents, like many hunting tribes in the Amazon,
traditionally abandon children with physical deficiencies to
die in the jungle. Worried the children would be shunned, Jocum
persuaded their parents to treat them with modern medicine.
That caused a fuss in the outside world, even though the
kids have returned to the tribe, their health improved, and are
being accepted by their parents.
“Indians who never left the forest had contact with
pollution, germs in hospitals, viruses and bacteria. There was
a risk of contamination from contact that shouldn’t have been
made,” said Roberto Lustosa, vice president of Funai.
GOVERNMENT STRUGGLES TO KEEP PACE
Facing criticism that it was letting religious groups work
unsupervised in Brazil and unable to say how many were active,
Funai in November ordered all of its 61 field offices to
canvass the countryside to contact all religious groups on
Indian lands and register them.
In theory, nongovernmental groups must have their projects
approved by Funai before working with indigenous tribes.
“I’ll have to admit that we don’t have a lot of control
over this situation,” Lustosa said. He faults a lack of funding
and says Funai needs 1,500 new employees to do its job well.
He also blames politicians who are born-again Christians.
“Congress has 100 evangelicals (out of 513 representatives)
and they have a lot of power. Other (Funai) presidents have
tried to deal with this issue and were attacked like we are
being now,” Lustosa said.
Brazil isn’t the only country in the region grappling with
missionaries. In October, neighboring Venezuela, expelled the
New Tribes Mission evangelists for allegedly mistreating
Church groups working with Indians not only fight with
Brazil’s government. They fight among themselves too.
A group funded by Brazil’s Catholic church, called the
Indigenous Missionary Council, or Cimi, which works to expand
Indian lands, filed a legal request asking the government to
verify that Jocum isn’t trying to convert indigenous groups.
Ribeiro denies Jocum pushes Christianity on Indians, even
though its Web site says its mission is to “know God and make
him known.” Her group has members from 149 countries and sends
25,000 people on missionary projects worldwide each year.
She also says that Jocum’s own anthropologists are more
adept at preserving Indian cultures than the government.
In the case of Suruwaha, the government was forced to rely
on Jocum missionaries who speak the native language to
communicate with tribal leaders.