Conversion

South America, until recently, was solidly Catholic. The liberators (O’Higgins1 , San Martin, Bolivar) may have thrown out the Inquisition, but they did not get rid of the Church nor its controlling influence.

This has an effect on our story.

Most Arab immigrants to South America were either Roman Catholic or Eastern Christian. The Catholics would have fit in seamlessly, of course; and many an Arab of Eastern Christian affiliation easily segued over to Roman Catholicism, completing the transaction of assimilation. Many others maintained their Syrian Orthodox Christianity which, because of its resemblance to Roman Catholicism, would not have stood out.

Often Catholicism was the state church in many countries, but a lot of official and unofficial tolerance was allowed2. Protestants had made it to Chile by the 1840s, and the Syrian Orthodox Cathedral of San Jorge (Saint George) was set up in Santiago Chile in 1917. By 1925, Chile had separated church and state3.


Saint George Syrian Orthodx Church in Chile – Complete assimilation!

Today, there is absolute freedom of religion in South America, but the Catholic Church is still a force to be reckoned with, and it can wield power in its preference4. This is typical of much of South America; except Brazil, where Evangelicalism is so powerful that it competes successfully for societal affections.

Jews, Orthodox Christians, and Protestants would be accepted, but Islam was so far out of consideration that there had to have been enormous societal pressure placed on the Muslim immigrants to convert or at least blend in.

For all intents and purposes, the pressure worked.

Source: Muslims in Argentina – Pedro Brieger

Chronicles from the 1940s mention that it is rare for a Muslim Arab not to drink wine.

If the Muslim would not convert, he would at least be pressured to conform to Argentine cultural norms such as alcohol.

Like America, the melting pot ethnic was enforced. You were going to conform. Unlike America, where religious freedom was total, there was real societal pressure to Christianize, preferably Catholicize. The Inquisition was gone, but if you wanted a passport, a baptismal certificate might be required. If you wanted to get married, a cleric might be required. True, a rabbi, minister, or judge might suffice, but where was a Muslim immigrant going to find an imam?

Many charities in South America were, and are, still run by the Catholic Church. Any Muslim immigrant in need would have been almost certainly met with a Catholic cleric.

seineldin.jpg
Colonel Mohamed Alí Seineldín was
the genuine article: a devout Catholic.

The effect was enormous. Carlos Menem, former President of Argentina, was a convert to Catholicism from Islam,; though some suspect it was for political convenience5. However, Colonel Mohamed Alí Seineldín, an Argentine hero of the Falklands War6, was the genuine article. He converted in his youth, and became a devotee of the Virgin Mary.

In the end, by intermarriage, outright conversion, or just lack of cultural support, Islam took a serious beating among Muslim immigrants.

South America has an amazing track record in this area.

In fact, as late as 2000, the Argentine academic Pedro Brieger was suggesting that Islam might die out in Argentina.

Source: Muslims in Argetina – Pedro Brieger

The number of Muslims in Argentina is decreasing, and this is due to several factors. Firstly, in families of Muslim origin, customs are being lost, from the Arabic language to food and drink. Secondly, there is relatively little reading material on Islam available in Spanish. There is a growing tendency toward mixed marriages in which children lose all references to Islam, and there are too few study centres for disseminating Islam. This may, however, change in the future with the construction of the new Islamic Cultural Center King Fahd, financed by the Saudi government, which includes a school and a mosque with a minaret in the heart of Buenos Aires.

From a Western Point of view, such a prediction was hopeful. Latin America had a real tendency to take in Muslims and crunch out Christian kids, or at least non-observant secular Muslim children.

However, the last two decades have seen some ominous trends.

These ominous trends are not as developed as they are in Europe, so Latin America has a possibility of reversing the mistakes and returning to their successful former practices.


1Bernardo O’Higgins, the liberator of Chile, wanted to grant total religious freedom in Chile to encourage Protestant immigration to the area. This caused immense hostility from the Church and reactionary classes. He was sort of an enlighted despot who tried to liberalize the country too fast. He advocated democracy, land reform, religious freedom, and an end to titled nobility, thus causing friction with the settled conservative establishment who accused him of being a dictator when he tried to rush reforms through. Eventually O’Higgins went in to exile. Chile later realized its mistake and he was called back; only to have him die en route home. His body was repatriated. After his death, Chile realized that O’Higgins policies were generally wise, even if he was a bit imperious in their implementation; and he is now their equivalent of George Washington.

2 For ex: Argentina set up Catholicism as a state religion, but there was no obligation to be a Catholic. An Anglican Church was set up in 1831 for British residents, on land donated by the Argentine President. Freedom of religion was finally ratified and written into the 1853 constitution. Synagogues were in Argentina by the 1860s.

Argentina’s Catholicity stems more from culture than sincerity. Their 1810 Revolution abolished the Inquisition; but there was a question whether freedom of religion could be manipulated by local caudillos (regional leaders) to the purpose of fomenting civil strife. After much debate, only the president was required to be Catholic since the president had a hand in the process of approving cardinals and bishops. Even that one relic requirement was changed in 1994. The only remaining issue is that the state subsidizes the Catholic Church.

That aside, since 1853, Argentines have had a clear constitutional right to freedom of religion, though society could exert massive pressure for Catholicism.

In the end, no one was obliged to belong to the Catholic Church. The situation is similar to established Lutheran Churches in Scandanavia or North Germany; or England where the King of England is still required to be Protestant.

3Ironically, Chile has a considerable Protestant population of 15% today. Futher confounding the picture is that Catholic Chile is one of only two countries in the world which celebrates Reformation Day as a National Holiday. Even more amazing is that no Protestant nation celebrates the day as a National Holiday any more, though some Protestant provinces in Europe do.

O’Higgins would have approved.

4This pressure can be quite real.

Though absolutely secular today, Chile did not legalize divorce until 2004, thanks in part to Catholic influence.

Throughout South America, abortion is illegal. In Chile, this prohibition is embedded in the constitution. A large part of this is due to the Catholic Church, but not solely. In Brazil and Chile, Evangelicals are strongly anti-abortion, and these pick up the battle also.

Juan Perón was eventually overthrown in 1955 by a conservative coup, in part because he stood up to the Roman Catholic Chuch; though to be sure there were other considerations. He went after the privileges of the elite classes in favor of the working class; and frankly, Perón was semi-dictatorial. The elites allied with the Church, and got rid of Perón.

The Roman Catholic Church does not operate dictatorially in Latin America today. This is not Medieval Spain; but it can ally with others to tip the balance in its favor. On the issue of abortion, the Catholic Church is allying with the Evangelicals, just as in the United States.

.5Menem’s wife and son did not convert at that time, which drew suspicion as to his sincerity.

6Colonel Seineldín was admired as a brave commander in the war who commanded the 25th Regiment which inflicted considerable damage on the British.

He would later be instrumental in two right wing coups against the government – in order to stop the prosecution of officers connected to the junta-era killings. The coups failed and Seineldín was imprisoned for 13 years; however to the end he seems to have remained a devout Catholic. He was devoted to Latin culture and once referred to Spain as the motherland – an amazing viewpoint from one of Arab ancestry; but it demonstrated his complete assimilation into Argentine culture.

He still has some admirers in Argentina among the right wing.