A champion of religious freedom in Brazil

Ivanir Dos Santos has long championed minorities in Brazil. Decades ago, he started the Center of United Marginalized Populations, a nongovernmental organization that advocates for minorities and fights racial discrimination.

But after Dos Santos received a 2019 U.S. Department of State International Religious Freedom Award for his efforts to increase understanding in Brazil, he saw his work gain new visibility and influence.

Dos Santos is a priest in the Candomblé religion, which has roots in Africa and came to Brazil with slaves hundreds of years ago. Candomblé is accepted as a legal religion, but its practitioners have suffered attacks for their beliefs. (Brazil is mainly Christian. Afro-Brazilian religions, such as Candomblé and Umbanda, are followed by less than 5 percent of the population, according to the Pew Research Center.)

Change is a long-term process, Dos Santos said. “The award gives me the opportunity to establish a more consistent dialogue with different segments of the society that now understand how serious our work is.”

People dressed in white surrounding a girl dressed in gold for a washing ceremony (© Eraldo Peres/AP Images)
A girl wears ceremonial clothing during a Candomblé washing ceremony that uses lavender water. (© Eraldo Peres/AP Images)

Ending intolerance

A scholar, Dos Santos writes about religious intolerance. He co-authored Guide Against Religious Intolerance and Racism (2008) and contributed to a 2017 government report, Religious Intolerance in Brazil.

Dos Santos advocates for more effective investigations by the Brazilian government of attacks on minority religions. “Many victims are still being threatened and need to abandon their places of worship,” he said.

Women and men in white moving in a circular procession (Carlos Külps/State Dept.)
An Afro-Brazilian woman priest, center, leads a group at an interfaith event at Barracão Kwe Cejá Gbé, a Candomblé temple in Rio de Janeiro. (Carlos Külps/State Dept.)

And to counter discrimination, Dos Santos tirelessly supports interfaith dialogue. That’s why he founded the Commission to Combat Religious Intolerance in 2008.

That year he organized the first Walk in Defense of Religious Freedom in Rio de Janeiro. The annual event draws as many as 50,000 participants from various religions, among them Islam, Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism.

Women in white marching in the street, waving their arms (© Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Members of more than 20 religious faiths participated in the Walk in Defense of Religious Freedom in Rio de Janeiro in 2017. (© Mario Tama/Getty Images)