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Missionary Could Face Genocide Charges in Brazil

Steve Campbell

After trespassing on the territory of a remote, isolated Amazonian tribe, American missionary Steve Campbell is being investigated by Brazilian officials. Campbell claims that passing through the land of the Hi-Merimã people was the only way for him to access another tribe, the Jamamadis.

Campbell, who has ties to Maine, has lived among the Jamamadis since 1963 when his missionary parents brought him to Brazil. Now, with his wife and two daughters, Campbell ministers to that 400-member tribe and is translating the Bible into their language. He was heading to teach the Jamamadis about GPS navigation, he says, when he accidentally passed through Hi-Merimã territory.

Charges Against Steve Campbell Could Be Serious

Officials from FUNAI, Brazil’s Indigenous Affairs Department, are now investigating. “It’s a case of rights violation and exposure to risk of death to isolated indigenous population,” a statement reads. “Even if direct contact has not occurred, the probability of transmission of diseases…is high.” The Hi-Merimã tribe numbers about 1,000 people.

Bruno Pereira, FUNAI’s general coordinator, says if Campbell used his relationship with the Jamamadis to approach the isolated Hi-Merimã, “he could be charged with the crime of genocide by deliberately exposing the safety and life” of the tribe. “Their immune memory is not prepared for a simple flu or conjunctivitis,” Pereira says. He adds that “contacts by people who do not respect the self-determination of these peoples and their ways of life…(has) led to violent interference in their vital relationships with the environment, with family relationships, with what they believe.”

Campbell’s case comes three months after American missionary John Allen Chau was killed by the isolated North Sentinelese near the Indian Ocean while trying to tell them about Jesus. Authorities haven’t retrieved Chau’s body for fear of further agitating the tribe.

Brazil’s Indigenous People Are at Risk

For three decades, FUNAI has maintained a firm “no-contact” stance toward indigenous tribes, saying up to two-thirds of members have died from disease exposure. But Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s new far-right president, favors deforestation and promises to eliminate the nation’s 305 uncontacted tribes. “If I become president, there will be not a centimeter more of indigenous land,” said Bolsonaro, who took office January 1.

Campbell has reportedly “changed the routine” of the Jamamadi, exerting a strong influence by learning their language and trading with them. The missionary reportedly wrote to his family, asking them not to “blame the natives if he’s killed. 

Campbell’s Plight Renews Missions Debate

Campbell is one of the missionaries supported by Greene Baptist Church in Greene, Maine. Pastor Josh Burden notes that Campbell doesn’t belong to his denomination and isn’t a church employee. The church’s website states: “We believe that God has called us to support the spread of His Word, therefore we provide financial support to both local and international missions.” On the church’s Facebook page, some people are now accusing it of supporting genocide.

Chau’s death last November led to vigorous debate among Christians about what risks and rule-breaking might be acceptable to fulfill Jesus’ Great Commission. Critics call “extreme” missionary work naïve and harmful, while others say it’s sometimes necessary for spreading the Gospel.

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Stephanie Martin, a freelance journalist, has worked in Christian publishing for 28 years. She’s active at her church in Lakewood, Colorado, where she lives with her husband and two teenage daughters.