A New Home, “God Willing”

Journalist Aaron Nelsen discusses the similarities and differences between the native and adoptive cultures of Palestinian-Chileans.

Upon leaving their homes and families, there was a common sentiment among Palestinian immigrants that they would one day return. Considering the tumultuous circumstances at home that never seemed to abate, it’s understandable that few ever did.

Interestingly, Chile was not as foreign as they might have imagined. To be sure, there were pronounced differences in language, food and religion. However, there were more than a few similarities.

The equatorial climate was ideal for growing many of the same fruits and vegetables common to the Middle East. Although the most famous story to make its way back to Palestine during the late 1800s was the myth of three men named Jorge who made a fortune as merchants, many other Palestinian immigrants in Chile settled in as farmers.

Before Palestinians crossed the Andes Mountains into Chile, 800 years of Arab influence in Spain had already made its way to Chile with the arrival of Andalucían immigrants. Literally dozens of Arab words were tweaked to fit the Spanish language, such as ojalá, which translates as “God willing.” Even the traditional Chilean folk dance, called the Cueca, is of Andalucían-Arab origin.

When it came to the church, however, that is where similarities to home ended. Chile’s constitution officially recognized only the Roman Catholic Church and until a new constitution was written in 1925 separating church and state, any religion other than Roman Catholic had to practice its faith behind closed doors, or at least out of plain sight.

In the capitol of Santiago, Patronato was the commercial hub and neighborhood of the country’s largest Palestinian community. Naturally, Patronato was pegged as the site for the first Orthodox cathedral.

Saint George’s Cathedral was inaugurated in 1917, six years before the 1925 constitution was passed into law, and so the church had to be concealed. To solve this problem the cathedral was built off the street, tucked in by buildings on both sides, a condition in which Chile’s longest-standing and most famous Orthodox Church can still be found today.

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