The Brazilian delegation to the Sept. 22-24 Economy of Francesco international meeting in Assisi will include a group of Black activists whose goal is to emphasize the importance of debating racial issues associated with potential economic transformations.
Connected to Educafro, a non-governmental organization that works for the inclusion of Afro Brazilians in higher education, the delegates will hand a letter to Pope Francis regarding the hardships that Black people face in Brazil and asking him to take action to deal with the situation.
“Pope Francis has a prophetic voice. By showing commitment to the struggle of the Afro Brazilian people, he will certainly impact institutions, government, and society,” explained Franciscan Father David Santos, Educafro’s founder.
The document recalls that all Latin American economies were based on African manpower for centuries during colonial times and that the church was part of that process, given that most religious congregations in Brazil and elsewhere used to own plantations of slaves. Since the abolition of slavery in 1888, the letter continues, Black people have become cheap labor, and the economic disparity with whites is significant.
“Unfortunately, the Brazilian church has not changed much since colonial times in the way it treats Afro Brazilians. It is eminently a racist institution and needs to be helped in order to assume a more responsible stance towards Blacks,” Santos said.
The letter to the pontiff points out that Catholic schools, which are the most numerous among Brazil’s private schools, have a low proportion of Black students: Not more than 5 percent – while Blacks comprise 56.2 percent of the people. The priest said this is something that reinforces the idea that “the church is one of the main forces behind systemic racism” in the South American nation.
Educafro will ask Pope Francis to call the attention of all bishops and cardinals in Brazil to the importance of taking measures of reparation, including guaranteeing at least 30 percent of the students in every Catholic school and university are Black.
The NGO will also request that the pope helps the Brazilian church to “reflect and convert by revising centuries-old practices which led to systemic racism,” such as the tradition of sending most Black priests to poor parishes and appointing few Black bishops.
The organization will also ask the pope to send a letter to all Brazilian presidential candidates – the elections will take place on Oct. 2 – requesting they include in their political platforms affirmative policies against racism and poverty, and to prevent the persecution, violence, and the murder of Black politicians in the country.
The letter highlights the cases of Marielle Franco, a Rio de Janeiro council member who was shot dead in 2018, and Renato Freitas, a council member in Curitiba whose mandate was revoked in August.
Earlier this year, Freitas took part in a demonstration against racism that ended up inside a church in Curitiba. Originally built by African slaves and freedmen who were part of a Black Catholic fraternity, the church is a traditional meeting place for Afro Brazilian activists in the city.
The protest inside the church shortly after a Mass sparked criticism all over the nation. The Archdiocese of Curitiba initially released a statement repudiating the demonstration. But after the case led to an impeachment process against Freitas, the church took his side, asking his colleagues not to revoke his mandate. In the end, he was impeached and removed from office.
With his mandate lost and impeded from running for office, Freitas is one of the members of the Brazilian delegation to the Economy of Francesco event.
“There is no proactivity from the church when it comes to confront systemic racism, and Freitas’s case is a good example of that,” said Samuel Emílio, a Black activist and formerly a coordinator at Educafro.
“We expected that the church would greatly mobilize society to react to the political persecution against Freitas, but that never happened,” he added.
Emílio noted that the debate on racial issues is secondary in the Economy of Francesco event’s schedule.
“Those issues should be promoted by the church with priority. We need more courage from the church to tackle racial inequality,” he said.
Dione de Assis, who graduated with a law degree using an Educafro scholarship and is an expert in economics, said that building a more inclusive economy depends on the debate of racial issues.
“People from other countries who will take part in the event seem to be more focused on environmental and gender issues. I think it is up to us from Brazil to stress the racial theme to propose a really transformative new economy,” de Assis told Crux.
She said this is a good time to discuss a more human economy, given that “most companies are reflecting about and implementing socially responsible policies as part of the ESG agenda.”
“In the private sector, racial issues have been advancing as part of the ESG movement. We want to collectively reflect on those subjects at the event and then bring that knowledge back to the Brazilian church, thinking on ways to incentivize in that direction,” de Assis said.
Santos said it is now time for a change in the church.
“The church needs to change its mentality and respect the Afro Brazilian Catholics before all of them decide to migrate to Evangelical churches, where they feel more comfortable and see the possibility of becoming leaders,” the priest said.