Brazil: Pope Benedict Xvi's Pro-Colonization Comment Stirs Heavy Criticism from Indigenous Community

NotiSur - South American Political and Economic Affairs, June 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Brazil: Pope Benedict Xvi's Pro-Colonization Comment Stirs Heavy Criticism from Indigenous Community


Pope Benedict XVI set off widespread outrage during an official visit to Brazil in mid-May when he said that the Roman Catholic Church purified indigenous people of the Americas and that an effort to revive local religions would be a step backward. Criticism of his comments ultimately led Benedict to make a partial retraction or revision of his statements. Numerous indigenous and even religious groups attacked the pope's claim that seemed to justify historical genocide.

Indigenous leaders: comments "arrogant and disrespectful"

Outraged Indian leaders in Brazil said on May 14 they were offended by Pope Benedict's "arrogant and disrespectful" comments.

In a speech to Latin American and Caribbean bishops at the end of a visit to Brazil, the Pope said the Church had not imposed itself on the indigenous peoples of the Americas. They had welcomed the arrival of European priests at the time of the conquest as they were "silently longing" for Christianity, seeking Christ without realizing it, he said.

Benedict said that his visit to Brazil, his first papal voyage to Latin America, "embraced not only that great nation, but all Latin America, home to many of the world's Catholics." He described the trip as being "above all, a pilgrimage of praise to God for the faith that has shaped their cultures for over 500 years."

The pope in Brazil told the bishops that "the proclamation of Jesus and of his Gospel did not at any point involve an alienation of the pre-Columbus cultures, nor was it the imposition of a foreign culture."

Millions of tribal Indians are believed to have died as a result of European colonization backed by the church after Columbus landed in the Americas in 1492, through slaughter, disease or enslavement. Priests blessed conquistadors as they waged war on the indigenous peoples, although some later defended them, and many today are the most vociferous allies of Indians. Many Indians today struggle for survival, stripped of their traditional ways of life and excluded from society.

Marcio Meira, in charge of Brazil's federal Indian Bureau, said Indians were forced to convert to Catholicism as the result of a "colonial process."

Pope Benedict's comments came under intense criticism from Latin American leaders, including Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, who accused him of ignoring a holocaust.

"It's arrogant and disrespectful to consider our cultural heritage secondary to theirs," said Jecinaldo Satere Mawe, chief coordinator of the Amazon Indian group Coordenacao das Nacoes Indigenas da Amazonia Brasileira (COIAB).

Several Indian groups sent a letter to the pope asking for his support in defending their ancestral lands and culture. They said the Indians had suffered a "process of genocide" since the first European colonizers had arrived.

"The state used the church to do the dirty work in colonizing the Indians, but they already asked forgiveness for that...so is the pope taking back the church's word?" said Dionito Jose de Souza, a leader of the Makuxi tribe in northern Roraima state.

Pope John Paul spoke in 1992 of mistakes in the evangelization of native peoples of the Americas. In 2000, during the Vatican's Holy Year, the church apologized to Brazil's Indians and blacks during a ceremony in Brazil for the "sins and errors" committed by its clergy and faithful in the past 500 years. A cardinal representing Pope John Paul II participated in the ceremony, which saw the head of Brazil's Bishops Conference (Conferencia Nacional dos Bisbos do Brasil(CNBB) ask God for forgiveness for the sins committed against people, especially the Indians.

Pope Benedict not only upset many Indians but also Catholic priests who have joined their struggle, said Sandro Tuxa, who heads the movement of northeastern tribes.

"We repudiate the pope's comments," Tuxa said. "To say the cultural decimation of our people represents a purification is offensive, and frankly, frightening. …

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