This article is the first in a series focusing on Muslim minorities around the world.
There are few places and communities in the world where Islam has yet to permeate; a sure sign of the growing influence of the religion at a time where global perceptions of Muslims are at something of an all time low. Visit almost any country in Africa, Asia, Europe and even North America, and you are likely to a find particularly strong Islamic presence. But what about lesser known Muslim minorities?
In the populous South American country of Chile, home to roughly 17.6 million, exists a sizable Palestinian community. Their numbers are estimated to be around 500 000, and although the majority are of Christian faith, a small minority do practice Islam. In fact, the Palestinian community in Chile is reported to be the largest outside any Middle Eastern and Arab state.
Their arrival in the country, whilst somewhat sketchy, is believed to have occurred during two major migrations; during World War I whilst under Ottoman rule (a result of the empire’s persecution of Christians), and later as a result of the 1948 Nakbah, a watershed moment in Palestinian history.
Many arrived at a particularly favorable time of development in the South American state, meaning it did not take long to integrate within the indigenous middle class.
Historic reports state that many arrived via ports in neighboring Argentina, undertaking a treacherous journey across the Andes Mountains into Chile, one of the few countries at the time to have acknowledged and recognized the Palestinian state. Since then, the community has grown exponentially with foundations in almost every major city, including the central Chilean city of La Calera, as well as the capital Santiago. Since their arrival, Palestinian immigrants have been seen as an integral part of the country’s commercial sector, even holding strong involvement in the countries political sphere.
Muslims and Islamic infrastructure in Chile
Whilst the Chilean Palestinians compromise mostly Christians, the community has been integral in forming the foundations of Islam in the country. In fact, of the meagre 4000 Muslims (around 0.1% of Chile’s population), a huge percentage are converts to the religion. And whilst the majority are considered Sunni, a small Shiite population does exist.
Despite a presence in the country since the early 1900’s, it was only until 1990 that the first real Islamic infrastructure was developed. Motivated by a growth in the religion during the late 70’s and early 80’s, one of the country’s top scholars at the time, resolved to begin construction on Chile’s first public Islamic worship centre; the ‘Mezquita As-Salam Mosque’ in Santiago. The centre accommodates around 500 people in a three story building; inclusive of various facilities. Construction was officially completed in 1990.
Similar institutions have also popped up in later years in the cities of Iquique, Temuco and Coquimbo. These have provided the small Muslim community with a sort of haven from which to practice their religion.
Cultural and organizational foothold
The Palestinian foothold in Chile is to such an extent, that the community now has several institutions and organizations dedicated solely towards their own interests. These range from schools and universities, social clubs, and even political parties.
Of these, few are bigger and more notable than Club Deportivo Palestino, a football team with a strong Palestinian backbone.
The team, formed in 1920 and donning the colors’ of the Palestinian flag, are seen as a great sense of pride amongst the community and have achieved some success in the country’s football league.
It has not been far removed from the political situation in Palestine however. In 2014 the club made global headlines when it opted to replace the number one on the back of its team kits, restyling the number to look like the Palestinian territories prior to Israeli occupation. Although earning widespread appraisal from sections of the pro-Palestinian lobby, it also put the club in hot water, leading to a fine from the country’s Football Association. Players later opted to tattoo the same image onto their forearms, in solidarity with those affected by the Israeli assault on Gaza.
Gaza conflict and activism
With Muslims and Palestinian sympathizers the world over taking to the streets in 2014 to protest Israel’s ‘Operation Protective Edge’ campaign on the Gaza strip, the Palestinian population in Chile were just as vocal. Amongst the campaigns held was a 5000 strong march through the streets of Santiago, urging the local government to break ties with Israel.
The move seemed to have some effect, with Chile recalling its ambassador to Tel Aviv in July 2014 in protest of the conflict, only reinstating him once a ceasefire between the respect sides were agreed.
Although Palestinians and Israeli’s in Chile have historically gotten on well, the conflicts have on occasions led to tensions on both sides, both with obvious interests in the situation. Despite this, both share the same goal of peace in the Middle East.
While making up but a small portion of Chilean society, the Palestinian community continues to grow at a rapid rate, and could very well surpass the 1 million mark rate.
Likewise, Islam continues to gain traction amongst both the Arab and indigenous populations in Chile, where the negative influences of radicalism have yet to break through. VOC (Mubeen Banderker)
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