ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Paradise in Brazil

The world’s largest Melkite community calls São Paulo home

On a cool Sunday morning in early April, parishioners fill the pews of the Melkite Greek Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Paradise in São Paulo, Brazil.

Numerous icons adorn the walls of the cathedral’s stunning nave. The two most precious icons figure prominently on the iconostasis, an icon screen dividing the sanctuary from the nave: Christ Pantocrator (Christ the Righteous Judge) and Theotokos (Mother of God). Overhead, a Byzantine–style mural of the crucified Christ covers the ceiling. Above the scene are painted in Greek the words “Triumph of Christ.”

Moments later, when the clock strikes 11, Archbishop Fares Maakaroun enters holding up the Book of the Gospels. A hush falls on the congregation, and the liturgy commences.

Located in the Paraíso (Portuguese for paradise) neighborhood in the heart of South America’s largest city and steps from its busiest thoroughfare, Paulista Avenue, the imposing Byzantine–style cathedral seems an unlikely landmark.

Yet, the cathedral and the Arab parishioners who built it have defined Paraíso since the 1940’s when construction began. By then, many of São Paulo’s Arab Christian immigrant families were living in the working–class neighborhood. In subsequent decades, the Arab community steadily grew, at times in sudden bursts, when emigrants fled conflict in Lebanon, Syria or elsewhere in the Middle East in search of a better life in the New World. Hearing about the opportunities in Brazil — often from relatives or friends already in Paraíso — São Paulo quickly became a preferred destination.

Today, the cathedral serves as the seat of the bishop of Our Lady of Paradise in São Paulo, spiritual home to an estimated 400,000 people — the largest Melkite Greek community not only in the Americas but in the world.

Though Paraíso remains the center of Brazil’s Melkite cultural and spiritual life, its demographics have changed dramatically in recent years. Social success and economic prosperity among first– and second–generation Melkite Arab–Brazilians have prompted most to choose more affluent residential communities in São Paulo and its sprawling suburbs.

Fortunately, some longtime residents remain to preserve the neighborhood’s historic Arabic flavor. Strolling Paraíso’s streets, one finds no shortage of Arab–owned restaurants, serving up traditional Middle Eastern cuisine, such as falafel, kibbeh, tajine and hummus. Many of these establishments so far have withstood the test of time, having remained in their families for several generations.

After the liturgy, a small group of parishioners approaches the altar and passes through a door leading to a spacious community hall. There, they gather to socialize and enjoy refreshments. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee and the sound of casual conversations in Arabic and Portuguese fill the air. Archbishop Fares, too, joins his flock and mingles with them.

Among the parishioners is 94–year–old Alice Salemi. Mrs. Salemi has spent her entire life in Paraíso and bears witness to nearly a century of its dynamic history. Her parents immigrated to the neighborhood from Lebanon. Born in Paraíso, she and her husband lived and reared their children there.

“We were a small group of families, but we were very close,” recalls the esteemed matriarch. “We didn’t have a church for our community. This church is here thanks to the families who lived in the neighborhood and worked together to build it.”

Arab Melkites first immigrated to Brazil in large number in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mostly settling in major cities such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, where they labored in the many new factories. For these Arabic–speaking Melkite Greek Catholic immigrants, life and community was a struggle in the Portuguese–speaking, predominantly Latin Catholic world.

“A hundred years ago, when the first Melkite Greek families arrived in this country, they heard Brazilians defining their faith by the same word as they used to define their own — ‘Catholic,’ ” explains Archbishop Fares. “Though they followed the Byzantine rite, this shared Catholicism combined with the absence of Melkite priests in Brazil at the beginning of the century led many to assimilate into the Roman Catholic Church.

“One of the early immigrants was an uncle from my father’s side, who came here in 1912, and with whom we lost touch,” he adds.

Not unlike his long–lost uncle, Archbishop Fares is himself a newcomer. Originally from Lebanon, he moved to Brazil in the late summer of 2000, at the age of 60, shortly after Pope John Paul II appointed him archbishop. Until then, he lived and worked in Lebanon, where he attended seminary, was ordained and served as priest and later as bishop.

“I gladly accepted the Holy Father’s appointment,” says the archbishop, who is a member of the Missionaries of St. Paul.

“I never imagined coming to Latin America,” recalls the archbishop. “I was from a place where we all spoke the same language, we all knew each other,” he says. “When I was asked to move to Brazil, I imagined it to be completely different. I was expecting to find endless forests, waterfalls with crystalline water. But instead, I discovered a concrete jungle; São Paulo is a massive city.”

Not until 1930 did Brazil’s burgeoning Melkite community receive its first priest — Archimandrite Elias Couéter. The following year, he consecrated the country’s first Melkite Greek Catholic church, St. Basil in Rio de Janeiro. In 1971, the priest was appointed the first archbishop of a new eparchy, even then the largest Melkite community in the Americas.

Brazil’s Melkites — as both Arabs and non–Latin Catholics — have long struggled to preserve their religious and cultural identity.

“The term ‘Melkite’ was first used in a derogatory way and was given to us relatively late,” explains Joseph Nemr, a Lebanese immigrant and member of the Our Lady of Paradise choir. “Melkite comes from the Syriac word malkaya, meaning ‘of the king,’ and was used to refer to our acceptance of the Council of Chalcedon.

“The first immigrants arrived here a long time ago, but there is still this confusion of terms and names,” continues Mr. Nemr. “We are all called Arabs in Brazil, but that is an incorrect generalization, more associated with politics than culture, language and religion. We are Lebanese, Jordanians and Syrians who share the same faith.”

An active member of Our Lady of Paradise parish, Mr. Nemr also teaches Arabic. He enjoys reminiscing about his youth in Beirut, where he attended a Catholic boarding school. “It was run by a group of Maronite Catholics but it was very diverse. There were youngsters representing all of the religions in the country,” the middle–aged man recalls with nostalgia.

Mr. Nemr first came to Brazil 25 years ago, amid the Lebanese Civil War. He and his family remained in Lebanon during the tumultuous early years of the war, which erupted in 1975. But as the war dragged on, one by one, members of his family left the country in search of a better life. His mother and brother immigrated to Brazil, followed first by his father then himself.

After spending some time in Brazil, Mr. Nemr decided to try his luck in the United States. He landed in the Boston suburb of Newton — seat of a large and vibrant Melkite Greek Catholic eparchy. Upon his arrival, the local community helped Mr. Nemr secure housing and employment.

“The difference was indeed tangible. The American community shared a greater sense of unity. When I decided to leave Newton and move to Miami, I once again counted on their help. A friend called another member of the Melkite community in Florida, who arranged a place for me to stay.”

The time Mr. Nemr spent in the United States helped him better understand the similarities and differences among the various Middle East Christian denominations. The sense of community he experienced among Arab Melkite Catholics in North America inspired him to get more involved with parish life and to help preserve the Arab Melkite Greek Catholic cultural and religious identity when he returned to Brazil. “Compared to what I experienced in North America,” says Mr. Nemr, “the forces of cultural assimilation are far more intense in Brazil for immigrants from the Middle East.”

On Easter Sunday, the Divine Liturgy at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Paradise draws a throng of parishioners. It is standing–room only. The faithful engage in light–hearted banter before the liturgy begins. Arabic and Portuguese mix into the din, along with the laughter of the many children.

Though most of the families have origins in the Middle East, a significant number do not. Some parishioners did not even grow up in an Eastern church. “The non–Eastern faithful who attend our services tell me they enjoy and respect our Byzantine rite, the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil,” says Archbishop Fares. “Even though some passages of the Divine Liturgy are read in Arabic, all of our priests speak Portuguese and we use it extensively,” he adds.

Father Ziad Al Khoury, a resident priest at the cathedral, marvels at the parish’s diversity. Originally from Safita, a city in northwestern Syria, he moved to São Paulo in 2003. Arriving without knowing a word of Portuguese, he learned it remarkably fast and now speaks it fluently. And as with most Middle Easterners who immigrate to Latin America, he has largely adapted to life in Brazil.

“There’s this similarity between us and Brazilians,” he says. “I believe it may be something about societies in developing countries. We have to learn how to overcome obstacles at an early age.”

Yet this similarity, says the priest, also accelerates assimilation and makes difficult the preservation of the community’s cultural and religious traditions. The sheer size of São Paulo and the wide dispersal of the Melkite Greek community throughout the metropolitan area exacerbate the challenges.

“In the Middle East, it is common for parishes to have on file the names and details of all the families in the area. Having those archives in hand helps our work. In São Paulo, on the other hand, people move around frequently,” says the priest. “And just the city alone is a world unto itself. Its vastness makes it hard for someone who does not live close to us to attend church regularly. But thankfully, they come to us on important occasions, such as weddings, baptisms and funerals.”

“By the grace of God, we manage to find ways to preserve our traditions,” adds Archbishop Fares. “But there is still much more to be done. For instance, I am trying to translate, in a more comprehensive way, our liturgy into Portuguese and bring awareness to the richness and beauty of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church.

“I have become acquainted with a new reality when moving to Brazil and now recognize the plurality of the Catholic Church,” continues the archbishop. “All the natural beauty — the endless forests, waterfalls with crystalline water — that I was hoping to find, I did find after all: in the hearts of the Brazilian people.”

Contributors Fidel Madeira and Izan Petterle are based in São Paulo.

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