Muslim And Happy In ... Brazil

The world's largest Catholic country has a long-established and steadily growing Muslim population. With some rare exceptions, Brazil is a model for integration of Islam into a mixed population.

Curitiba's mosque
Curitiba's mosque
Nicolas Bourcier

SAO PAULO — There's a big crowd for midday prayers this Friday. More than 500 people — men, women and children — are gathered at the Brazil mosque in Sao Paulo, the oldest and largest Muslim prayer hall in Latin America. The white early 20th century building is surrounded by high walls and shady trees, and retains its peace and serenity despite the city highway built next to it.

A day after the Paris terrorist attacks last January, someone wrote "En sou Charlie" (Je suis Charlie) on the mosque's perimeter wall. The words were quickly cleaned off. Local media characterized it as an "isolated act." The habitual peace and quiet returned, or so it seemed.

A third of the believers here come from West Africa and Arab countries. They are youngsters aged 20 to 35, recently arrived migrants lured here by Brazil's reputation as a land of immense wealth, or forced to flee violence and war. The remainder are Brazilians, half of whom converted to Islam in recent years. Most have earphones to listen to a translation of the sermon. As in practically all mosques in Sao Paulo — there are 17 — the imam doesn't speak Portuguese.

Sao Paulo's Mosquita Brasil — Photo: Facebook page

The important thing is that the "faith is accepted," says the primary religious authority in the area, Abdelhamid Metwally, who arrived from Egypt in 2007. Metwally, a graduate of Cairo's Al-Azhar University, speaks with authority and dons a long, black robe and a red fez wrapped in white. "It's so they""ll recognize me," he says with a smile. "But the main thing is what is inside you."

Metwally bears witness every week as four to six Brazilians convert to Islam and utter the profession of faith (shahada). "Brazil is a country of tremendous tolerance, where we can express our beliefs with great freedom, which is not the case anymore in some European countries," he explains.

Soap opera effect

Brazil, the world's most Catholic country, has witnessed a significant increase in Muslims over the past 15 years. The exact number is difficult to know as "they are registered under the "other" category," says Francirosy Ferreira, an anthropology professor and Islamic specialist at Sao Paulo University (USP). "But their estimated number is now about a million, of whom 30% to 50% are converts, depending on the region," he says. Brazil's overall population is approximately 200 million.

Islam was repressed in the early 18th century when Muslim slaves carried out several revolts. It began to recover in recover in Brazil in the 1920s, with the influx of Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians. This gained momentum in the 1980s and after the 9/11 attacks.

"One observed a renewal of interest in this religion, which was being reviled in the media," Ferreira says. "But here, there was even more interest after October 2001, when the broadcaster Globo began airing a soap opera that took place in Morocco," he adds. The series, called The Clone, was created before the terror attacks and sought to paint a picture of the Arab world that included an entirely admirable Muslim protagonist.

Curitiba's mosque — Photo: Rodrigo Ghedin

But the show's timing — that fact that it coincided with the attacks — "made an impression," says Luiz Carlos Lucena, who has made a documentary on conversions to Islam. According to some sources, roughly 70% of converts in Brazil are women, mostly young and relatively well educated. A large proportion of them are from metropolitan suburbs where Islam's messages about social justice and race equality increasingly resonate.

Cristiane Bertolino converted in 2008, at the Do Pari mosque in Sao Paulo. "I come from a Catholic family and have never had a problem since I began wearing a headscarf, even at work," she says. "It is good to be a Muslim in Brazil. It could even be the best place for a Muslim. I'm not saying there are no prejudices or frictions, but there is no conflict."

"You feel very different"

Dana al-Balkhi arrived here in September 2013 on a direct flight from Istanbul. The 26-year-old language student was one of 1,740 Syrians given refugee status in Brazil at that time. "I knocked at every embassy in Turkey, and Brazil's was the only one to give me a visa," she says in her lively manner.

Her sister came with her but returned to Syria after a few days. "Brazil was too liberal for her. I am a believer too, but less rigid," she says. Dana admits she doesn't like Samba or carnival. She also doesn't understand why her Brazilian friends keep asking her to drink alcohol and dance. "Brazil is an extremely welcoming country," she says. "But it's difficult to practice Islam here. Halal food is expensive and difficult to find. And even if you're not viewed with hostility, you feel very different."

Dana has given private lessons, worked in a clothes shop and been refused jobs, notably in a private school, but now works at the Brasil mosque. There were so many calls after the Paris attacks, she recalls. Metwally and about 40 other imams nationwide swiftly issued public condemnations of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. There were isolated calls, for example from Ali Zoghbi, deputy head of Brazil's Federation of Muslim Associations, that France should also punish blasphemy, though with limited repercussions.

Daniela Ernst, a 30-year-old English teacher who converted as a child, has a more nuanced view of the country. "For Muslims, it is clearly easier to live in Brazil right now than elsewhere," she says. But hostility does exist, according to Ernst, who says she has seen evangelical pamphlets that are openly anti-Muslim. She also mentions an incident in which a Molotov cocktail was thrown at the house of a Muslim family in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. And in the outskirts of Sao Paulo, a student with a headscarf had stones thrown at her after the Paris attacks, the teacher recalls.

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"The Truest Hypocrisy" - The Russia-NATO Clash Seen From Moscow

Russia has decided to cut off relations with the Western military alliance. But Moscow says it was NATO who really wanted the break based on its own internal rationale.

NATO chief Stoltenberg and Russian Foregin Minister Lavrov

Russian Foreign Ministry/TASS via ZUMA
Pavel Tarasenko and Sergei Strokan

MOSCOW — The Russian Foreign Ministry's announcement that the country's permanent representation to NATO would be shut down for an indefinite period is a major development. But from Moscow's viewpoint, there was little alternative.

These measures were taken in response to the decision of NATO on Oct. 6 to cut the number of personnel allowed in the Russian mission to the Western alliance by half. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the removal of accreditations was from eight employees of the Russian mission to NATO who were identified as undeclared employees of Russian intelligence." We have seen an increase in Russian malicious activity for some time now," Stoltenberg said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry called NATO's expulsion of Russian personnel a "ridiculous stunt," and Stoltenberg's words "the truest hypocrisy."

In announcing the complete shutdown in diplomacy between Moscow and NATO, the Russian Foreign Ministry added: "The 'Russian threat' is being hyped in strengthen the alliance's internal unity and create the appearance of its 'relevance' in modern geopolitical conditions."

The number of Russian diplomatic missions in Brussels has been reduced twice unilaterally by NATO in 2015 and 2018 - after the alliance's decision of April 1, 2014 to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation between Russia and NATO in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea. Diplomats' access to the alliance headquarters and communications with its international secretariat was restricted, military contacts have frozen.

Yet the new closure of all diplomatic contacts is a perilous new low. Kommersant sources said that the changes will affect the military liaison mission of the North Atlantic alliance in Moscow, aimed at promoting the expansion of the dialogue between Russia and NATO. However, in recent years there has been no de facto cooperation. And now, as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has announced, the activities of the military liaison mission will be suspended. The accreditation of its personnel will be canceled on November 1.

NATO told RIA Novosti news service on Monday that it regretted Moscow's move. Meanwhile, among Western countries, Germany was the first to respond. "It would complicate the already difficult situation in which we are now and prolong the "ice age," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters.

"Lavrov said on Monday, commenting on the present and future of relations between Moscow and the North Atlantic Alliance, "If this is the case, then we see no great need to continue pretending that any changes will be possible in the foreseeable future because NATO has already announced that such changes are impossible.

The suspension of activities of the Russian Permanent Mission to NATO, as well as the military liaison and information mission in Russia, means that Moscow and Brussels have decided to "draw a final line under the partnership relations of previous decades," explained Andrei Kortunov, director-general of the Russian Council on Foreign Affairs, "These relations began to form in the 1990s, opening channels for cooperation between the sides … but they have continued to steadily deteriorate over recent years."

Kortunov believes the current rupture was promoted by Brussels. "A new strategy for NATO is being prepared, which will be adopted at the next summit of the alliance, and the previous partnership with Russia does not fit into its concept anymore."

The existence and expansion of NATO after the end of the Cold War was the main reason for the destruction of the whole complex of relations between Russia and the West. Today, Russia is paying particular attention to marking red lines related to the further steps of Ukraine's integration into NATO. Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov previously stated this, warning that in response to the alliance's activity in the Ukrainian direction, Moscow would take "active steps" to ensure its security.

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