SÃO PAULO – A group of Black Brazilians who attended the Aug. 1-6 World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal, in order to hand in a letter to the pope about racism in Brazil and in the Church, now say they suffered racist attacks on more than one occasion during the event itself last week.
One such alleged act of aggression was recorded by a member of the Brazilian delegation. The video, made Aug. 4, shows a number of young Catholics, all of them white, appearing to make monkey sounds as they passed by Marcolino Vinícius Vieira, a Black Brazilian who was carrying the country’s flag.
“I got lost after the Via Sacra and could not find my group. I suddenly saw myself among those people. They were laughing at me and imitating the sound of monkeys,” Vieira told Crux.
He said that some of youth in the group shouted the names of Vini Jr. and Militão, two Black Brazilian soccer players who have suffered numerous racist aggressions during matches in Spain.
“They realized I was insulted. I do not speak any other language than Portuguese, so I just made a gesture with my hands to question them about what they were doing. They immediately surrounded me,” Vieira described.
At that point, he feared for his safety, as the group grew more and more aggressive. He said he managed to run and hide from them at a shop.
“I took some time to get calmer. Then I decided to look for a police station and denounce what happened,” he said.
Vieira affirmed that WYD volunteers heard his story and did not bother to help him report it to the police. In fact, he repeatedly felt that everybody tried to discourage him from doing so.
“At the police station, they failed to give me a copy of my report [something that is expected in Brazil], so I do not know how my complaint was documented,” he said. Vieira also said that police never asked to have a copy of his video.
A 29-year-old member of a quilombola community, formed by the descendants of enslaved Africans who fled captivity when slavery was legal in Brazil (between 1500-1888), Vieira went to the WYD along with other activists connected to Educafro, a non-governmental organization founded by Franciscan Father David Santos, which struggles for Black rights, especially to education, in Brazil.
Although his parents are Catholic, Vieira said he is a follower of Candomblé, an African Brazilian religion. In Lisbon, he got a chance to talk about his life and his spirituality at the parish where he was received in Charneca da Caparica, a district in the city of Almada, on the outskirts of Lisbon.
“People heard my story there with respect, and I felt welcomed by them. Most of them were local Portuguese families. But during the event itself we suffered many attacks from foreign delegations,” he lamented.
Educafro’s delegation was a diverse one, formed by other quilombolas, by Black activists, and by a transgender woman.
Gilmar Santos, a 29-year-old physician from the Kalunga quilombola community, said that on Aug. 1 their group was surrounded by European pilgrims, who accused one of them of being a thief.
“It was very crowded and we struggled to move among people. Suddenly, a group of white participants shouted that one of our friends was a pickpocket. We feared we would be lynched and ran,” Santos told Crux.
He also claimed that his transgender friend was harassed every day.
“On one occasion, a group of young men approached her saying that she was a man and that she had no place there. They had a violent attitude. She had to run,” Santos said.
During a Aug. 5 vigil, Santos said his group had another problem. The square was divided in different segments and each group had to remain in the appropriate area, according to their assigned badge. But it was very crowded, he said, and most delegations ended up mixed.
“As we laid down near a group of Europeans, they demonstrated discomfort and questioned us about the area where we should be,” he described.
Although there were numerous pilgrims from other sectors there, they were the only ones asked to leave. The Europeans called the volunteers and they had to move.
“We were far away from our sector, and decided to sleep on the sidewalk near the park,” Santos said.
The Educafro delegation wanted to give a letter to Pope Francis in which the organization discusses racism in Brazil and in the Church. They were received by Auxiliary Bishop Américo Aguiar of Lisbon, who organized the WYD.
After the unpleasant events the delegation experienced, Father David Santos emphasized that many changes must happen in the Church if it wants to really include everybody.
“The Catholic Church needs to understand that evangelizing is also combating racism in all levels and in all dioceses in the world,” he told Crux.
Father Santos said that the struggle against racism in the Church must include broad actions, including ethnic quotas for Catholic schools and more Black and Indigenous priests chosen as bishops.
During formation for the First Communion and Confirmation, young Catholics must be taught about anti-discrimination, he said.
The Brazilian priest also hopes that something is done to hold youth who participated in racist incidents at WYD responsible for their acts.
“They must be identified and their bishop should ask them to sign a letter apologizing to the quilombolas and Black Brazilians and acknowledging that racism is a sin,” Father Santos said.
In his opinion, their families should be asked to fund scholarships for Black Brazilians in their city, “so they would learn to live in diversity – the people’s diversity, according to God’s creation.”
Gilmar Santos, who has always been a devout Catholic, said that he felt disappointed about the racist attacks his group suffered.
“I thought we could be protagonists of the WYD, along with everybody who was there. But it was a predominantly white event,” he said.
Vieira asked himself what he was doing in the WYD, an event where he was suffering “the same kind of racism” which he is used to experiencing in Brazil. He said that he felt stronger, nevertheless, with the support from the other members of the delegation and from Father David Santos, who, despite the different time zone, was always ready to talk to them by phone.
“We need the Church to embrace and put in action Pope Francis’s ideas against racism,” he said.