This was your third trip to Chile, what was the purpose of it?
This trip was an important one since for the first time in Chilean history and possibly in Latin America; the local Muslim communities were able to have an iftar ceremony under the sponsorship of a head of state. Chilean Muslims were invited at the presidential palace La Moneda, by the country president Michelle Bachelet.
Representatives of the country’s Muslim communities, guests and visiting scholars such as Sheikh Faisal, Sheikh Ghassan and I were invited. Regrettably Sheikh Ghassan, head of the Shi’a Islamic Centre, had to cancel due to the death of his father in Lebanon.
There were Sunni, Shi’a and Sufi Muslims. People as far afield as Iquique in the north of Chile attended the function. Iftar started with the Maghreb azan (evening call to prayer), prayers and meal in presence of the president. We thought she will come quickly and go, but she remained with the guests throughout the evening.
The President was the first to address the invitees. In her talk, she mentioned that this would not be the last time that an iftar would be arranged in the palace and that she intended to establish it as a continuing tradition.
During the dinner the Shi’a Muslim community presented her with a gift on behalf of all the Muslims – a Persian handcrafted vase and a miniature art work which I personally brought from London. She was very appreciative of it.
At a later date we also had an opportunity to invite government officials to the Shi’a Islamic Centre of Chile in the Las Condes area of Santiago.
Among the attendees of this official iftar were representatives of the Orthodox Church, Iraqi, Iranian, Syrian and Saudi ambassadors, university professors as well as the personal representative of the Chilean president for religious affairs.
I was very fortunate to meet the distinguished guest Ignacio Sanchez, head of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, who was very pleased to have attended the iftar and later facilitated my visit to ten universities across the country where I gave lectures and talks.
You also attended the Al-Quds Day. Tell us about it?
In Chile Muslims do not have Al-Quds Day in the streets so Shi’a Muslims have been organising Al Quds Day at the centre by inviting officials and ambassadors from Muslim and non-Muslim countries.
We were pleased to see the Palestinian ambassador and some members of the Palestinian Club. This club is a very influential organisation in Santiago. I briefly explained how this day came about, and gave a short history of Al-Quds and its importance for Muslims. I also underlined the position of this city and how it belongs to all monotheistic religions and not a single tribe or ethnic group. The significant part of this commemoration came when the Palestinian officials acknowledged and thanked the late Imam Khomeini for initiating such a day.
I was then invited to the Palestinian Club for an iftar and seated next to the mother of the Chilean President, Mrs Angela Margarita Jeria Gomez. She was ex-Executive Director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women (2010-2013). Among the guests there were some military officials and also the ambassador of Vatican in Chile, Mons. Ivo Scapolo. The ambassador also personally praised Imam Khomeini’s initiative in establishing Al Quds Day which was a touching gesture.
Have you had any discussion with the Vatican Ambassador?
I was invited to visit the Vatican embassy in Santiago and the ambassador. I had a long discussion with Ambassador Scapolo about Islam, the differences between Shi’a and Sunni schools of thought, etc. He was interested to get further clarification on who are the terrorists and who is behind Daesh (ISIS) and other related topics.
In my short stay I was fortunate to have several meetings such as this. After Ramadan, I also had a meeting with the archbishop of Santiago de Chile, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati Andrello. The cardinal had previously met the two Muslim Shi’a representatives, but in a less formal setting. In this occasion media were also present as well as other delegates. We were all warmly received but in an official way. The archbishop was very friendly and very welcoming, and open to dialogue. He explained that in accordance with the directive of Pope Francis, this year was named The Year of Hope and Mercy. He believed that our presence in Santiago provided a great opportunity for further dialogue and meetings. In this same meeting one of the bishops, in the presence of the archbishop, expressed the view, based on his research, that Saudi Arabia was behind the support for Daesh/Isis and their activities to which the archbishop appeared to agree. I also visited a left-wing University in Santiago in completely different setting.
Can you tell us more about this visit?
My last meeting was at the University of Art & Social Sciences in Santiago where I was invited by chair Edward W. Said to be the member of a panel discussion on ‘Islam and geopolitical imperialism’ co-sponsored by the Centre for Islamic Culture in collaboration with the Chilean Committee for Solidarity with Palestine.
I was not asked to talk about religion, but I explained that as a minister of the religion, I could speak about social justice through the teachings of the Qur’an, Prophet Muhammad(s), Imam Ali(a) and the practices of the Ahl-ul-Bait(a).
The University is privately founded and currently has around 1000 students of which around 700 are from the deprived countries of Latin America. I spoke to some professors who had left their jobs at places such as Preston, Berkley and Harvard to be part of this university.
Being mostly from a leftist/communist background some of the professors were not interested in discussing religion or acknowledging its importance, but I told them that insisting on not having a religion on its own is a religion. The session was followed by many good questions and answers. After my talks one of the former professors from Berkeley University told me he had discovered that he was a Muslim because Islamic principles on social justice did not contradict his way of thinking.
When I arrived there I did not shake hands with ladies and perceived that somehow, they got offended but once the ice was broken the same ladies were keen to talk to me and learn more about Islam. My talks were very short but the Q&A section was quite long, mostly with the academic staff and some politically left-leaning students who made an effort to pop in briefly and ask interesting questions.
What is planned for the future?
Just before coming back, I visited the Muslim graveyard. Unfortunately some Sunni Muslims are objecting to the burial of Shi’a Muslims in the Muslim allotment and this has created a big problem and a major concern for us. When I was there a Shi’a Muslim passed away and because of their rejection the body was buried in a Christian graveyard, with a Christian ceremony. That encouraged me to arrange a meeting with the officials of the graveyard and explain the Shi’a Muslims’ requirement. Fortunately they have agreed to allocate a plot of land uniquely for Shi’a Muslims with 400 graves on three levels. We are considering buying the whole area and then selling it according to demand. The purchase of multiple plots makes financial sense at it would be cheaper. When all these arrangements are made we will look for donations or a big company to buy the whole lot and sell it later as per the requests of the Shi’a population. This is one of the practical plans we have for the future.
The community is also looking for a piece of land to build an Islamic centre. This would have to be an iconic, purpose-built place, a building reflecting Islamic culture and architecture becoming an attraction also for non-Muslims.
A similar building already exists in Chile, in the northern city of Iquique, established by the Moroccans. It attracts many visitors.
How did you find the cooperation among various followers of Ahl ul Bayt(a)?
My last trip took 25 days mostly during Ramadan in which I was able to assess the community. There is some intra-community cooperation, but much more is needed. Santiago is a very big city and Shi’a Muslims are scattered in different places. For example during Ramadan the Afghanis had iftar within their houses. The Pakistanis did come to the main Shi’a Islamic Centre although they have managed to buy a flat for their gathering right in the middle of the town where the Pakistani community is located. Most of them are single and first generation immigrants. We have two groups of Lebanese, some arrived in Chile 130 years ago losing their religious identity over time to rediscover it later. They can be considered ‘reverts’ to Islam in the real sense of the meaning. The Islamic Centre of Chile is run mostly by these ‘reverts’ and Chileans convert to Islam. There is another Lebanese group who are new arrivals; they are mostly single. They live very close to their businesses and they hold their iftar nearby. Their area is far away from the Shi’a Islamic Centre. They assist the Centre but they have their own gatherings.
I do believe there is a need for a religious scholar to be based there with his own office where he can visit all the communities and meet their members without being affiliated to any existing organisation or community. Ideally a minimum of three scholars are required to be there permanently, for the south, central and northern areas. This is something we have been discussing and to which are looking to find a speedy solution.
There are certainly conditions for the Shi’a Muslim community to flourish there, but at the moment due to lack of places for Islamic education, no sooner do children finish school than families leave Chile and go to Brazil and Argentina as there are better facilities for Islamic upbringing of the youth. There is an area in South America known as known as the ‘Shi’a Triangle’ between Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil, where recent Shi’a Lebanese migrants come together. According to Sheikh Faisal almost 250 people attend the morning prayers and around 500 people attend other daily prayers. I will be visiting this area in my next visit to assess what kind of assistance can be provided.
Visiting the Antarctica part of Chile is also in our plans but that would be in summertime.
Sayyed Razavi will, God-willing, be visiting Chile in the coming Islamic month of Muharram.
Hujjatul-Islam Sayyed Mohammad Razavi is the head of the Family Section at the Islamic Centre of England