A first look at Latin America would lead us to conclude that it is predominantly Catholic with little religious diversity.
Data supports this notion. According to the Pew Research Center, 90% of Latin America’s population is Christian, while Muslims, Hindus, and Jews represent less than 1% each.
And yet, one of the 12 most religiously-diverse countries in the world, Suriname, is in Latin America. With a population of 520,000, Suriname is the smallest state in South America. According to Pew, it has a Christian majority (52% of the population), while the other half of the population is formed by two sizeable minorities: Hindus (close to 20%) and Muslims (about 15%). The rest of the population is made up of folk religions (5.3%), Buddhists (0.6%), and Jews (.2%). The unaffiliated represent close to 5%.
While exemplary in its diversity, Suriname shows us that the reality of religious diversity in Latin America is complex. So what exactly is meant by “religious diversity”?
Religious diversity remains a descriptive term. It does not necessarily or automatically translate into religious coexistence or tolerance. The days of the Inquisition are long behind us, and many Latin American countries have turned away from monolithic definitions of citizenship, prioritizing multiculturalism and pluralism instead. Nevertheless, grassroots prejudice (fueled largely by not knowing “the other” and the transmission of stereotypes), hate rhetoric, and conflict are still prevalent in some Latin American communities and societies.
Jewish communities, for example, are small minorities that vary in number, integration, participation, visibility, and coexistence with other minority and majority groups. Since Latin America’s Jewish communities started growing in the late 19th- and 20th centuries, Jews, by many accounts, have flourished in Latin America, becoming judges, entering into politics, economics, culture, and academia. At the same time, however, Jewish communities continue to face prejudice and/or antisemitism, sometimes sanctioned by political parties and authorities.
According to the Anti-Defamation League’s 2013/2014 survey, the number of people who hold anti-Jewish views is lower in Latin America than elsewhere in the world. But with respect to individual countries, those numbers tell a different story. In Panama, the average number of individuals with anti-Jewish views is above 50%. Colombia and the Dominican Republic are both close to 40%, while the average in Venezuela is 30%. In Mexico, where the average is 24%, antisemitism is mainly expressed discursively in the printed press and more recently on social media, while in countries such as Argentina, where the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) was bombed in 1994, and Venezuela, which has experienced a rise in antisemitic rhetoric and acts of vandalism in recent years, it has been expressed violently.
In multicultural regions where religion is a central axis of identification and where religious groups live next door to one another but do not necessarily coexist, there is ample room for creating a foundation for tolerance. This includes teaching and learning about each other, holding positive views, developing interpersonal relations that are respectful, accepting, and appreciative, and expressing one's belief freely and encouraging others to do the same. Schools and other learning communities – including those online - are ideal spaces to create and nourish these behaviors.
Last year, the Pan American Development Foundation (PADF) and Facing History held two online workshops that brought more than 400 Latin American educators, students, and activists from a dozen countries together to examine the historic roots of antisemitism, and its connection with local issues of religious intolerance. As a result, high school and college teachers in Mexico City, Quito, Buenos Aires, and Bogotá have designed lessons that include a case study of antisemitism, this hatred's historic development, and its contemporary expressions in Europe and the Middle East, as well as right here in Latin America.
As we open up the dialogue about religious diversity, starting in little ways in our own communities, more and more people will have the opportunity to engage in honest conversation about myths and stereotypes, history and its legacies, and the specific ways in which individuals can create tolerant communities and societies in an increasingly multicultural region.
Visit the Give Bigotry No Sanction project website for important and timely conversations about religious freedom, religious diversity, and civic identity.
Read George Washington’s 1790 Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, a foundational document of religious tolerance.
Sign up for an online course on Holocaust and Human Behavior.