BRASILIA (Reuters) - Indigenous organizations in Brazil protested on Friday against the inclusion in a bill on emergency assistance to tribes in the coronavirus pandemic of a paragraph authorizing Christian missionaries to remain in indigenous communities.
The propose law approved by the lower chamber of Congress on Thursday night provides rapid COVID-19 tests, medicine and food to indigenous communities while allowing them to control access to their territories to avoid the spread of coronavirus.
But in an inclusion called “sneaky” by critics, the bill said evangelizing missionaries that are already in indigenous communities could stay subject to medical exams.
“We absolutely reject this attempt to allow access of missionaries to indigenous territories here there are isolated tribes,” the largest umbrella organization representing Amazon indigenous tribes, COIAB, said in a statement.
COIAB said the presence of evangelizing missionaries has historically brought “tragedy and death” to indigenous people in the Amazon, and was a particular threat to isolated tribes that have only entered recent contact with Brazilian society.
The bill, which still needs Senate approval, was passed by the chamber on the same day that a federal judge blocked the appointment of a former missionary to head the isolated tribes department at the government’s indigenous affairs agency Funai.
The judge said the appointment of Ricardo Dias was unlawful because it countered Brazil’s policy of not forcing uncontacted indigenous people to enter contact with society.
Funai said it would comply with the ruling pending appeal and denied the policy of respecting the voluntary isolation of indigenous people had changed.
Survival International said the appointment of Dias was “like putting the fox in charge of the hen house.”
Evangelical missionaries have re-doubled their efforts to contact uncontacted tribes under Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, who has vowed to develop the Amazon economically and has strong evangelical support.
Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Marguerita Choy