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Bolivia's Muslims Successfully Coexist Within Society, Say Religious Academics

posted 18 Aug 2013, 04:59 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 18 Aug 2013, 05:00 ]

A small but growing number of Muslims reside in the South American nation ofBolivia, where President Evo Morales has made the country's diversity a cornerstone of his administration.

LA PAZBOLIVIA (AUGUST 14, 2013) (REUTERS) -  Like most of Latin AmericaBolivia has, for centuries, been associated with Catholicism, the religion of over 80 percent of the population. But now, a small but growing number of Muslims are calling the landlocked South American country "home".

In 2006, Bolivians elected their first indigenous president, Evo Morales, to office. Over the next few years, he pushed through constitutional changes, eliminating Catholicism as the official religion and renaming the country 'the Plurinational State of Bolivia,' stressing its diverse cultures and identities.

Morales also reached out to Iran, which opened an embassy in La Paz in 2008. Since then, Tehran has been a driving force in increasing the Islamic presence inBolivia, both within the society and the state.

Iran has proposed a number of bilateral agreements with Bolivia, ranging from economic development projects to military exchanges.

In return, Bolivia has lifted visa restrictions for Iranian citizens and has facilitated the increased presence of Iranian officials in this Andean nation.

In the past fifteen years, the Muslim population in Bolivia has grown from a handful to 2,000 believers, 25 percent of whom are Shi'ite.

Bolivian attorney and law professor Roberto Chambi Calle heads the Association of Islamic Studies "Ahlul Bait Bolivia," in La Paz where about 50 Bolivians regularly attend mosque.

He teaches Arabic and, along with his wife Sdenka Saavedra, he has written several books to teach Bolivians the tenets of Islam, as the couple hope to spread their faith.

"We have cultural and academic activities. We are dedicated to the publication of both academic and sociological texts, so that society has wide knowledge, from a Bolivian perceptive, of what Islam and this life system represent. We have been working towards that (goal) for the past 15 years and we believe that in the Plurinational State of Bolivia, we are able to coexist," said Chambi.

"We want to interact and live here. We want our children to be raised the Islamic way, respecting Bolivian culture," Chambi added.

Saavedra, a feminist, has recently presented her latest book, "Terrorismo Contra La Mujer" ("Terrorism Against Women"), at the Bolivian vice-president's office.

Promoting better treatment of women, she offered readers a spiritual solution to social problems, saying Islam is the path to a world without gender violence.

"How can we abolish this catastrophe of terrorism against women in the world and in our country? What I am proposing is an approach to God," she said.

According to the United Nations Development ProgrammeBolivia has the second highest rate of violence against women in the region, after Haiti.

While Chambi and his wife work primarily in the capital city of La PazBolivia also has a Muslim community in Santa Cruz and a smaller presence in Sucre,Cochabamba, and Oruro.

The country's Muslim population includes descendants of people from Bangladesh,PakistanEgypt, the Palestinian territories, Iran, Syria, and Lebanon, according to the World Almanac of Islamism website.

There are at least eight different Islamic organisations, both Shi'ite and Sunni, operating within Bolivia, funded primarily by money from Saudi Arabia or theIslamic Republic of Iran.