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Indigenous Groups in Amazon Sue to Stop Missionaries from Illegal Visits

The vast Amazon basin has long drawn missionaries seeking to reach people who haven’t yet heard the Gospel of Christ. The killing of Jim Elliott and four other missionaries in 1956 in Ecuador inspired decades of initiatives to remote and potentially dangerous villages.

But now, missionaries working with New Tribes Mission Brazil and other groups are facing a formidable foe: indigenous groups backed by laws that protect small, isolated tribes from both pandemics and proselytizing.

As The Washington Post reported on Sunday:

…the biblical commission that followers of Jesus “make disciples of all nations” is increasingly colliding with the laws of man in Brazil, where the right to voluntary isolation is enshrined in the constitution and where it’s illegal to contact isolated Indigenous groups without government permission.

Eliseio Marubo, the first indigenous lawyer to emerge from Brazil’s Javari Valley, home to more than a dozen tribal groups, grew up resenting outsiders who came to his community for land, lumber, gold, and converts. Missionaries claimed historic tribal customs were “demonic.”

Marubo and the Javari Valley Indigenous Peoples Union have argued that American missionaries illegally reached the isolated Korubo people. Their lawsuit names New Tribes; evangelist Wilson Kannenberg and his wife; Josiah McIntyre, a missionary from Alabama; and evangelist Andrew Tonkin, who is accused of numerous illegal forays into isolated areas. A judge has expelled some of these Christian workers.

Last year, Marubo claimed missionaries threatened to burn down the union hall where the case came together. And efforts to expel missionaries are complicated in a region where evangelicals can often outnumber Catholics, and where a former New Tribes missionary, Ricardo Lopes Dias, oversees the country’s care for the tribes.

In November, members of the Jamamadi tribe occupied a government outpost to protest the expulsion of American missionary Stephen Campbell, who was accused of illegally entering indigenous areas. Campbell has called the allegations “rumors and speculation.”

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Brazil enacted “no contact” policies in 1987 to protect isolated tribes from diseases for which they had no immunity, unleashing what missiologists call a “third wave” of efforts to reach the unreached through indigenous missionaries, who often rely on outsiders for financial support, helicopters, and planes.

Some missionaries have claimed they were unaware of the “no contact” policy. Others intentionally ignore it, saying the demands of Christ’s Great Commission outweigh human laws, and that God will protect people from disease.

New Tribes and its missionaries have a troubled history in the region, including a 1991 expulsion of one missionary for intruding in indigenous areas; the 2014 conviction of Warren Scott Kennell for sexual abuse and producing child pornography; and the 2018 imprisonment of Manoel de Oliveira for enslaving indigenous people on his nut plantation.

Further complicating matters, some American missionaries have embraced Brazil’s conservative president Jair Bolsonaro, a divisive leader often compared to Donald Trump who has filled his administration with evangelical appointees and derided indigenous people as “prehistoric.” In a 2020 Facebook broadcast, he said missionaries were helping indigenous people change: “They are increasingly becoming human beings just like us.” 

Steve Rabey

Steve Rabey is a veteran author and journalist who has published more than 50 books and 2,000 articles about religion, spirituality, and culture. He was an instructor at Fuller and Denver seminaries and the U.S. Air Force Academy. He and his wife Lois live in Colorado.