The Arab and Islamic world in Chile

This article is also available in: Italiano

Although with fewer total citizens of Arab origin, Chile is the South American country in which the Palestinian community has found its dimension, so much so that it has become the largest outside the Arab world.

Very small premise

I used the words “The Arab and Islamic world in Chile” rather than “Arab-Islamic” precisely to emphasize the split nature of the two realities, which will however both be dealt with in this article. I would like to specify it because they often associate automatically, but, for everything concerning South and Central America, it would be a serious mistake; in fact the very many Arabs who came here were mostly Maronites, Orthodox, Druze and only a small part of them were Muslim (and among them there were both Sunnis and Shiites).

Chile

On the contrary, the historical presence of Islam in these lands is mostly attributable to Indian and Indonesian workers (as in the case of Suriname) or even to African slaves purchased by the Portuguese for their plantations. As always, I will try to follow a mostly chronological narrative by combining the two stories but I repeat: they are two different stories that are joined here.

The largest Palestinian community outside the Arab world

Even if, as in the case of Argentina, it seems that the very first Arabs and Muslims to arrive in Chile were Moors and Marranos fleeing from Andalusia, to await the first “official” migrations we will have to wait until the end of the nineteenth century. In fact, it will be in this period that the first great problems will begin in the Ottoman Empire which will then be the cause of its definitive fall following the First World War; compulsory military service, famines and some persecutions will in fact push many of the inhabitants of Bilad as-shams to turn their gaze beyond the Atlantic, thus giving way to the first mass Arab emigration, which will then be followed by an even greater at the end of the conflict. Unlike the countries already addressed (Brazil and Argentina), in which the majority of Arabs were of Syrian and / or Lebanese origin, in the Chilean case the vast majority of migrants were Palestinian; most, specifically, were originally from Bethlehem and the territories around it.

Chile

Dedicating himself mostly to the itinerant trade, most of the newcomers were not well regarded by the Chilean elite, but this did not prevent them from developing faster and faster under a commercial profile, quickly managing to open shops and, shortly after, even banks and shopping centers becoming a real economic center of the country; it is no coincidence that 10% of the members of the national congress are of Palestinian origin. Although there are no precise data on this, it is common opinion that the country represents the largest Palestinian community outside the Arab world, which has led it to have privileged relations with Palestine and Mahmoud Abbas. Compared to other countries where the Arab presence is easily recognizable, but for those with a minimum of “eye”, in Chile it is more evident than ever, with clubs such as Palestino representing the community also in the local league.

Palestino, the Chilean Palestinian club

In 1920, precisely to provide a representative of the Palestinian community in Chile, Palestino was founded, a club that still plays in the local top league and that, over the course of its 100 years, has managed to triumph 5 times between cup and championship. national. However, this club is not so famous for sporting merits, but more for being the only team recognized by almost all Palestinians (both Chilean and non-Chilean) and for its beautiful and spectacular initiatives in support of Palestine.

Asian cup
The special edition of the Palestino jersey with Palestine in place of “1”

It is no coincidence that Yasser Arafat wrote to the team personally in 2003 and that in 2018 Mahmoud Abbas himself went to the club’s sports center, La Cisterna, to meet players and staff members live, receiving a special shirt with the map of historical Palestine on the reverse. A very similar initiative was also carried out in 2014, the year in which the club took the field with a unique jersey on the back of which the aforementioned map was printed instead of the number “1”. Also following these extraordinary political interventions, the club has been financed since 2009 by the Bank of Palestine and is the only Chilean team to be broadcast on Al Jazeera.

Islam in Chile today

According to a 2012 census, in the whole of Chile there are about 3,000 Muslims, the lowest number for the South American states currently treated. The first mosque was inaugurated in 1989 in Santiago de Chile thanks to the participation of the Malay monarchy.

Chile
The Mezquita As-Salam in Santiago, the first mosque in the country

Another 3 or 4 places of worship should have been built but it is not clear if all these are also mosques or simple Islamic centers. Precisely because of its immense abundance of Christian Palestinians, it is estimated that the Chilean community is the largest Palestinian Christian community in the world, even larger than that currently in Palestine.

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