What was the purpose of your visit to this South American country?
This was my second visit to Santiago, Chile. The first time I was invited to give sermons for the commemorations of Ashura during the first 10 days of Muharram. However it soon became clear that my engagement there would be extended to other activities besides reciting sermons. On the first day of my arrival I was requested to attend a seminar at the Centre of International Studies at University of Santiago entitled ‘The Modern World and Harmonious Living in a Multi-Faith Society’.. This occasion gave me the opportunity to be introduced to many Chilean theologians and university lecturers. My participation in this event led to other meetings in churches and educational establishments. Due to the short length of my first trip I was unable to accept other invitations so it was suggested that I make another trip to Chile. Six months later I went back during the holy month of Rajab in 2016.
This time a schedule of meetings was prearranged that included visit to schools and universities as well as the local communities in Santiago and other parts of the country such as Punta Arenas, one of the southernmost cities of Chile, close to Antarctica. There I met church leaders and some political officials such as the Intendente of Magallanes, the representative of the Chilean Antarctica region and the representatives of the Chilean Foreign Office. I was invited to go to Antarctica to meet scientists who are engaged in research and among them were some Muslims who often had religions queries. For many of these officials this was the first time they had met a Shi’a religious scholar.
Could you briefly describe the make-up of the Chilean Islamic community?
I was told there are four million Muslims living in South America. These are mainly Syrian, Palestinians and Lebanese Muslims. In Chile, Shi’a Muslims are comprised of Zaidi, Bora, Ismaili and Ithna ‘Asharis (Twelvers). These are descendents of immigrants who migrated due to upheavals in their countries and settled in Chile 130 years ago. The early migrants were single men who later got married to local women. Due to the absence of scholars and the limited level of religious education they gradually lost their identity and by the next generation, they were Christianised.
Today, thanks to developments in communication technology, people are learning and rediscovering their ancestors’ ethnic cultural and religious origins and wish ever more to reconnect to it.
On my last trip I managed to help two families to get closer to their Islamic roots, and naturally we opened the door for many more. The basic programme consists in visiting the area, giving talks and trying to reconnect people to their original identity.
In general how is the situation of Shi’a Muslims there? Are there any Shi’a organisations in any part of Chile?
There are many communities of Muslims and a few organisations but they need Islamic education. The one I was invited to visit is basically run by converts to Islam. There are around 100 Lebanese, mostly recent immigrants, around 100 Afghani refugees, and at least 60 Pakistanis. There have been some visiting scholars, mostly from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon who visit but never a permanent presence.
How do you describe the attitude of local people towards Muslims and Islam?
In one of the areas in northern part of Santiago there is a mosque on top of a hill next to another hill where there is a Church. The mosque was built by Moroccans and it has become an attraction. According to local people at least 200 people visit this mosque every day, tourists and local people alike.
I met some youths when I was there and found them very eager to know more about Islam. They are able to speak in English making it easy to communicate compared with the older generation with whom I had to converse via translators.
What kind of questions would they ask?
Everything from A-Z. Many were quite surprised in learning about the commonalities that exist between Christianity and Islam. I went to address students at a high-ranking all-girl Catholic School where future leaders are educated. Students had done their homework about Islam. They asked me why Muslims have no single leadership like the Catholics have. I explained that we do have a similar structure with a hierarchy of knowledge. One student said: ‘… you believe in God, you believe in Jesus(a), you believe in Virgin birth, you believe in return of Jesus(a), you believe in the Day of Judgment, you believe in heaven, so what is the difference between Christianity and Islam”?
With regards to the economic strength of the community, how did you find it?
The Shia community has deep roots, even though there are many non-practising Muslims. According to the information we have, there are around 60 important landowners originally from Lebanon. There are military commanders in the air force and police who are originally Shia Muslims. There is a Muslim Shia senator; I went to his house as well. In Carperrero, the city he lives in, he owns at least 80% of the farms. Most of this city is owned by his family. There are many Shia Muslims who have a vague idea of who they are and where they come from and would like to rediscover their roots. If we leave them we will lose them forever. These visits are important.
The community has the potential to be self-sufficient. Our responsibility is to provide religious educational services to them for a few years. The community is quite rich; its members need encouragement and some expertise in running their establishments. They definitely need schools. There were many Lebanese who first migrated to Chile, but later due to lack of religious schools and scholars to teach their children then migrated to Brazil.
At the moment how is the political situation in Chile, considering it had a long history of dictatorship?
Chile looks and feels stable at present. When I was there one of the presidents who took over from Pinochet died and we went to his funeral. I was standing next to his family. I was treated with much respect, as they have reverence for religious personalities and in my case I represented one of the few Muslim scholars present at the funeral.
What are the future plans?
A trip in Ramadan has already been arranged and I am invited to have Iftar in the Presidential Palace. We are also looking forward to the possibility of exchanging university lecturers between Iran, Iraq and Chile so they can have Islamic Studies Chairs in Chilean universities.
I have also been requested to go back at least every three months for about two/three weeks each time. There are some other scholars in nearby countries such as Argentina and Brazil. At the moment Sheikh Faisal from Argentina, along with some other visiting scholars and I, look after the Muslim communities’ needs in Chile. Sheikh Ghassan from Lebanon is also due to visit. He is one of the financiers of the organisation that helped the community buy a new centre.
There is an idea to build a unique mosque in the centre of Santiago which could serve as a centre for all the community’s gatherings. This represents a unique opportunity insha-Allah.
Hujjat ul Islam Sayyed Mohammad Razavi is the head of the family section at the Islamic Centre of England