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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And reporting from Brazil all this week, I'm Melissa Block. I'm here in Rio de Janeiro with our South America correspondent, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro. Hey, Lulu.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Hey.

BLOCK: And we're going to have stories on the rising middle class in Brazil, what's fueling economic growth in the north of the country. And we're going to talk about race in this diverse culture, and the myth that Brazil is a racial democracy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's right. Brazil has the largest black population outside of Africa. For the first time, more than half of Brazilians define themselves as black or mixed race. That's 97 million people.

BLOCK: But at the same time, those numbers really haven't translated into power - right? - whether it's social power, economic, political or religious power. And your story today is about an Afro-Brazilian religion. Tell us about it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's right. A recent religious poll has shown a sharp uptick in people self-identifying as followers of Afro-Brazilian religions like Candomble. I recently went to a Candomble ceremony in a crowded house of worship. They are waiting for the gods to come to them from the spirit world.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a sacred festival day in honor of Omulu. The women wear white dresses with crinoline crossed with colorful belts and headdresses. The men are in lace pajama-style suits. For hours, they sing and dance in a circle, the room gets warmer, the chanting more intense.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Suddenly, they are here. The Orixas have possessed the chosen among the faithful. These are the spirit gods, the deified ancestors who link humans to the other world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOUTING)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Those who have been taken over writhe and shout. They are led away and then return dressed in beautiful sparkling costumes depicting the aspect of the deity, the snake god Oshunmare, Omulu, the Orixa of death. Candomble came to Brazil on the slave ships of West Africa. Followers believe in one all powerful god who is served by lesser deities. Each initiate has their personal guiding deity that acts as an inspiration and protector. There is no concept of good or evil, only individual destiny.

PAI NELSON: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Pai Nelson is the priest in this house of worship. He says today's ritual is one of purification.

NELSON: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Candomble was once very hidden, very isolated, he says. Candomble wasn't accepted here. People always had a preconception about it because it was African. Black people aren't accepted in society here. We do animal sacrifice, so our religion is very different than any other, he says. People don't understand it.

But there has been a recent push to change that. Sitting among the faithful here is Marcilio Costa, who is the commercial officer at a foreign consulate in Sao Paulo. He became an initiate a year and a half ago, and he says he's open about it.

MARCILIO COSTA: Among Brazilians, yes. People understands better now these days, you know? All my friends know my religion, every single one of them. I don't hide from no one.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the Afro-Brazilian studies department in the University of Rio, Ana Paula Alvez Ribeiro listens to the group Meta Meta, which uses the rhythms and language of Candomble in their music. She explains that for some time now, musicians and artists have been influenced by the many Afro-Brazilian religions here. But it's only in the last few years that adherents of Candomble have made a push to be more widely recognized in other forums.

ANA PAULA ALVEZ RIBEIRO: (Through translator) In the census of 2010, there was a big movement within Candomble called he who is, say that he is, meaning those who practice Candomble should give that as their religion in the census.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Candomble, like its cousin Santeria practiced in Cuba, is a syncretic(ph) religion, meaning that many of the Orixas are also represented by Catholic saints, and Candomble has absorbed many Catholic practices. So for much of its hidden history here, Candomble practitioners would tell the government they were Catholics when they weren't. It was a way of protecting themselves from persecution. But after the fall of the military dictatorship three decades ago, Afro-Brazilian activists saw that instead of cowering in the shadows, Afro-Brazilian culture had to be put front and center.

RIBEIRO: (Through translator) So the Afro-Brazilian religions start to organize to fight for their rights and against religious intolerance. In the new millennium, you start to see African religions holding their festivals out in the open, in the streets, not hidden in the basements.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But it's a battle for recognition on many fronts. And there is a new challenge: the rise of evangelical Christianity. Almost a quarter of Brazilians say they identify as evangelical while Afro-Brazilian religious followers are still a tiny fraction of the population at less than 5 percent.

MARCELO MONTEIRO: (Singing foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Marcelo Monteiro sits in the open-air tejero - or Candomble church - surrounded by palm trees and buzzing insects. Shrines to the various deities dot the area. He sings a West African Yoruba folk song about how no religion will stop them from practicing their faith. It's become a kind of battle cry, he says. Monteiro is a Candomble priest who has started the first Candomble political party, PPLE.

MONTEIRO: (Through translator) With the growth of Pentecostal religions and their dominance in the halls of political power within congress, we felt obligated to start our own political group.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Monteiro complains that much of the status Candomble had gained is being lost again since evangelical Christianity swept Brazil. Afro-Brazilian shrines have been attacked by evangelical groups, and some of the evangelical churches call their religion devil worship.

There is another reason, though, Monteiro thinks it's vital to have a Candomble party in congress. Even though people of African descent are now more than half the population of the country, they are only 8 percent of the lower house of congress. Only two out of 81 senators are black.

At a Rio restaurant, we meet Jana Guinond. She's a black activist and a Candomble practitioner who says the legacy of slavery can still be felt here in every part of life. Brazil was the last country to give up slavery in the region. She says the fight for equality is ongoing, and protecting Afro-Brazilian religious heritage is part of that.

JANA GUINOND: (Through translator) It's important to highlight the huge importance of the black movements in pushing for the appreciation of diversity or religious plurality. Many people would like to get rid of the black population in Brazil and their beliefs, but we won't allow that.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's wedding day at a Candomble house of worship. The bride and groom are led into the hall while family and well-wishers look on. As part of their push for legitimacy, the first legally binding weddings and baptisms are now being presided over by Candomble priests. Pai Leonardo is conducting this wedding ceremony.

PAI LEONARDO: (Through translator) We have the right granted by the constitution. If we are recognized as a religion, we have to function like one. To be respected, we have to operate in public to lose the fear we have had since slavery.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Our religion is beautiful, he says. Up until now, we haven't existed in the eyes of the world. We need society, the government, the people here to recognize that we do exist, that we can take our place side by side with the other religions. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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