Rio de Janeiro (AFP) - Brazil's image as a religious melting pot has been shaken in recent weeks by a series of hate crimes, raising alarm over growing intolerance amid a surge in Evangelical Christianity.
Brazilians are known for fusing African, European and indigenous beliefs into a diverse array of colorful local traditions.
But that syncretism has recently come under fire in a wave of attacks on practitioners of spiritualism and Afro-Brazilian religions.
Earlier this month, Gilberto Arruda, a well-known medium popular with the stars, was found murdered, his hands bound and face swollen, at a spiritual center in Rio de Janeiro.
Arruda, 73, was known for practicing "spiritual surgery," and claimed to be able to receive the spirit of a World War II German doctor.
The tomb of the country's most famous medium, Chico Xavier, was also vandalized in Minas Gerais state.
Several days earlier, also in Rio de Janeiro, an 11-year-old girl, Kailane Campos, was hit in the head with a stone when two men assaulted her family on its way home from a Candomble service, an Afro-Brazilian religion whose practitioners dress in white for ceremonies.
The family said the men waved a Bible at them and shouted "Devils!" and "Jesus will return!" before hurling a stone and wounding the girl.
Mayor Eduardo Paes apologized "in the name of all Rio citizens" and warned that the city, which is gearing up to host the 2016 Olympics, risked damaging its image of tolerance.
"Diversity is Rio's brand. It's unacceptable for people to be attacked because of their religion," he said.
- Media might, political power -
No one has been convicted in any of the recent hate crimes.
But they have prompted a backlash against Evangelicals from some who perceive the growing power of the new Protestant Churches as a threat.
Evangelicals have made major inroads in Brazil in the past 30 years.
In 1970, just five percent of the population was Protestant. Today, the figure is 22 percent -- some 44 million people.
There are Evangelical television networks, radio stations and a political movement that is now the third-largest group in Congress.
Known as the Evangelical Front, it opposes racial and gender equality, abortion and gay marriage.
Religiously motivated hate crimes are not new in Brazil but "are getting worse" with the rise of Evangelicalism, said Ivanir dos Santos, a "babalawo," or Candomble guardian of secrets.
Dos Santos has, since 2007, organized an annual march against religious intolerance on Rio's famed Copacabana beach that draws hundreds of thousands of people.
"In a city that's going to host the Olympic Games, we have to support cultural diversity," he told AFP.
"We're not against the Evangelicals but against a fascist minority that wants to rule over all of us with hegemonic power. It's dangerous for freedom of speech and Brazilian democracy."
- Battle for Brazilian soul -
Brazil has the largest Catholic population in the world, some 123 million people.
But many of those Catholics have a very fluid notion of their faith.
Every year, millions of Brazilians attend Christmas mass then dress in white on New Year's Eve and make offerings to Yemanja, the goddess of the sea in Candomble.
Many of them also believe in mediums, spirits and reincarnation.
But the Evangelical Churches strongly reject African-influenced traditions.
The effect is especially visible in poor communities, where Evangelicals have made especially large inroads.
Many of the drug traffickers who rule over Brazil's favelas, or slums, have converted to Evangelicalism -- thanks partly to the pastors who preach in the country's overpopulated prisons -- and have now banned Candomble places of worship on their turf, according to Dos Santos.
That is changing the soul of cities like Rio de Janeiro, said Helio Santos, head of the Institute for Diversity.
"This group of neo-Pentecostalists have changed the modern culture of the city. The joy of carnival and samba has become a sin," he said.