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Aggressive Russia Makes Sweden Rethink Military, NATO

Swedish Rangers
Swedish Rangers

Gotland is Sweden's largest island, home to some 57,000 people and a popular tourist destination during the short Swedish summers for its many beaches and hiking trails. During the Cold War, the island also served as a key military base in Sweden's defense against the Soviet threat, which loomed just 80 miles away to the east along the Latvian coast.

Today, more than 27 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, soldiers are returning to Gotland.

Russia's expansionist rhetoric and increasing number of military maneuvers has prompted Sweden to raise defense spending by 10.2 billion kronor ($1.18 billion) for the period 2016- 2020. And a part of the defense build-up will be the reinstallation of soldiers on Gotland.

Finland, which itself has grown wary of Moscow since the crisis in Ukraine, constitutes a buffer zone between Sweden and Russia to the north. But the Baltic Sea is an open crossway to Sweden, which makes the island crucial in any eventual threat coming from the East. The new Gotland battle group will initially consist of 300 men, a far cry from the 20,000 soldiers who were placed there during the height of the Cold War, but it is all part of "showcasing a heightened threshold," Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist told Stockholm daily Dagens Nyheter.

In its 2015 annual report, NATO states that Russia has conducted at least 18 large-scale snap exercises over the last three years, some of which have involved more than 100,000 troops — levels unseen since the height of the Cold War.

"What we can see is that there are more exercises, more military activities in the Baltic Sea," Hultqvist says. "We can also see more proactive activities, flying close to our aircraft."

The 2015 NATO report claims that one of these exercises was a mock nuclear strike against Sweden during war games less than three years ago.

The Russian threat has also reignited the discussion over Swedish membership in NATO. Opinion polls conducted last year showed, that nearly almost half of all Swedes were in favor or joining NATO, a sharp increase since 2012 when fewer than one in five supported the idea.

Also writing in Dagens Nyheter, Jean-Pierre Olov Schori, a Swedish diplomat and former International Secretary in the Swedish Social Democratic Party, notes that NATO membership would risk changing the country's nuclear policy. "Sweden has pursued a consistent anti-nuclear policy since 1960," he said. "This policy, which has given Sweden massive support and credibility for many years in the UN, would not possible if Sweden becomes a member of NATO."

Indeed, despite the skittishness that comes with a newly emboldened Moscow, Sweden is a country that has not fought a war since 1814, and which prides itself on a tradition of neutrality and non-alliance. Major changes, like NATO membership, will not come lightly. Michael Byden, Supreme Commander of the Swedish Armed Forces, emphasizes the need to better analyze and understand the situation as the most pressing necessity.

"Did we understand, before it happened, the annexation of Crimea?," Byden wondered in a recent BBC interview. "Did we understand that they were very close to starting something in Eastern Ukraine? This is one of the great challenges right now: what are they up to and why do they do it?"

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Brazil's Evangelical Surge Threatens Survival Of Native Afro-Brazilian Faith

Followers of the Afro-Brazilian Umbanda religion in four traditional communities in the country’s northeast are resisting pressure to convert to evangelical Christianity.

image of Abel José, an Umbanda priest

Abel José, an Umbanda priest

Agencia Publica
Géssica Amorim

Among a host of images of saints and Afro-Brazilian divinities known as orixás, Abel José, 42, an Umbanda priest, lights some candles, picks up his protective beads and adjusts the straw hat that sits atop his head. He is preparing to treat four people from neighboring villages who have come to his house in search of spiritual help and treatment for health ailments.

The meeting takes place discreetly, in a small room that has been built in the back of the garage of his house. Abel lives in the quilombo of Sítio Bredos, home to 135 families. The community, located in the municipality of Betânia of Brazil’s northeastern state of Pernambuco, is one of the municipality’s four remaining communities that have been certified as quilombos, the word used to refer to communities formed in the colonial era by enslaved Africans and/or their descendents.

In these villages there are almost no residents who still follow traditional Afro-Brazilian religions. Abel, Seu Joaquim Firmo and Dona Maura Maria da Silva are the sole remaining followers of Umbanda in the communities in which they live. A wave of evangelical missionary activity has taken hold of Betânia’s quilombos ever since the first evangelical church belonging to the Assembleia de Deus group was built in the quilombo of Bredos around 20 years ago. Since then, other evangelical, pentecostal, and neo-pentecostal churches and congregations have established themselves in the area. Today there are now nine temples spread among the four communities, home to roughly 900 families.

The temples belong to the Assembleia de Deus, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and the World Church of God's Power, the latter of which has over 6,000 temples spread across Brazil and was founded by the apostle and televangelist Valdemiro Santiago, who became infamous during the pandemic for trying to sell beans that he had blessed as a Covid-19 cure. Assembleia de Deus alone, who are the largest pentecostal denomination in the world, have built five churches in Betânia’s quilombos.

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