Evangelical Christian missionaries have launched a campaign against what they claim is the widespread practice of infanticide among Amazonian Indians.
The missionaries, associated with the U.S.-based group Youth With a Mission, say the Brazilian government is turning a blind eye to the killing of babies born with birth defects, many of which are treatable by Western medicine.
Brazilian government officials say the missionaries are exaggerating and exploiting the issue to justify their attempts to convert Indians to Christianity, destroying ancient civilizations in the process.
The fight has spilled into American churches and Brazilian national politics. It has reached the point that the Brazilian Department of Indian Affairs is accusing the evangelicals of enslaving Indians and disguising their intent to evangelize.
At the center of the debate is a girl named Hakani, a member of the Suruwaha Indian tribe, who has been adopted by evangelical missionaries Marcia and Edson Suzuki.
The Suzukis say members of the tribe tried to kill Hakani by burying her alive because she was disabled.
"When she was born, she looked normal," Marcia Suzuki said. "But when she was 2 she couldn't walk or talk, so they thought she had a monkey's soul, not a child's soul."
The Suzukis say Hakani was rescued by an older brother, who carried the girl out of the jungle on his back. When they first saw Hakani, they say, she was 5 years old but weighed only 15 pounds and had scars all over her body. Eight years later, Hakani is walking and talking normally. Doctors say she had treatable thyroid problems.
The Suzukis have hospital records and pictures of how the girl looked when they found her. They admit there is no way to verify what they say happened with the remote jungle tribe.
They teamed up with American film director David Cunningham, whose father founded Youth With a Mission, to make a movie titled "Hakani" that graphically recreates Hakani's alleged attempted murder.
It is being shown on the Internet and at churches in the United States and Brazil to raise money and awareness of legislation against infanticide in the Brazilian legislature.
The missionaries say Hakani's story is not an isolated case. They say infanticide is common among Brazil's more than 200 indigenous tribes, which they say sometimes kill babies because they are deformed or are born to a single mother. The missionaries say the Brazilian government often overlooks the killings in the name of respecting Indian culture.
"It's a taboo," Marcia Suzuki said. "No one is allowed to talk about it or interfere."
The Brazilian government has tried to discourage infanticide, but the Department of Indian Affairs does not have a policy that requires action to stop it from happening.
In an interview here in the Brazilian capital, Antenor Vaz of the Department of Indian Affairs says that the state is not "in favor of death" but that it would be dangerous to "criminalize indigenous actions."
The state, he says, should not use the moral judgments of modern culture "to regulate the indigenous cultures who have survived in this land a lot longer than us whites." To do so, he says, risks subverting ancient cultures.
"We are not defending death," he said. "Very much to the contrary, we are defending the cultural survival of a people."
It is a view shared by some activists.