New PADF Campaign Promotes Religious Tolerance in Latin America

By Gillian Gaynair

In January, a swastika was found spray painted on a wall of the Jewish Cultural Center in Sao Paulo, according to the Anti-Defamation League. The same happened last year in Mexico City at the Maguen David synagogue. And in Argentina in March 2013, ballots distributed in one local election read, “Be a patriot, kill a Jew.”

In response to such expressions of discrimination against Jews and others, the Pan American Development Foundation (PADF) recently launched “Cree en la Tolerancia”(Believe in Tolerance), an innovative program to promote religious tolerance in Latin America. Anchored in interactive training events, education campaigns and other public awareness activities, this initiative works through teachers, youth, community leaders and others to spread messages of acceptance. It ultimately aims to create an environment—whether in a neighborhood, classroom or workplace— where people can coexist peacefully, even among their differences.

“Imagine if tolerance was a religion,” said Luisa Villegas, director of PADF programs in South America. “A religion where all other beliefs could coexist and people could make up their own creeds and prayers, where respect for the other was the only commandment; that is the option that we are giving the followers of our initiative, ‘Believe in Tolerance.’”

As part of the program, PADF recently launched a new online platform to promote tolerance in the region and serve as a clearinghouse for information related to religious discrimination—including anti-Semitism—in Latin America. The site also includes a series of educational and audiovisual resources for journalists, teachers, activists and others interested in raising awareness about issues related to religious intolerance.

Latin America and the Caribbean has among the greatest share of the global Christian population, some 549 million people, and only a small presence of other faiths: Jews, Muslims and Buddhists, for instance, make up less than one percent of the population in the region, according to 2010 data from the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project. The number of Muslims, however, is projected to grow modestly in the next 20 years, with the largest increases occurring in Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela.

Three percent of the global Jewish population lives in the region, with Argentina being home to the largest number of Jews in Latin America, followed by Brazil and Mexico.

Meanwhile, people without any religious affiliation—atheists, agnostics and those who do not identify with any particular faith—make up nearly 8 percent of the population in the region.

In recent years, intolerance for such religious diversity has been primarily reflected through graffiti and on social media, which can provide a certain level of anonymity. This is particularly true in Argentina and Venezuela, where international observers say anti-Semitic rhetoric and activities have been on the rise. “Social media is sort of the new frontier, where intolerance can be spread beyond national borders and exacerbate existing tensions in some environments,” Villegas said.

“The new website is essentially the portal for our campaign against intolerance in the region,” she added. “We hope that through it, we can encourage people to not only discuss this important issue, but also take action in their own communities – including through social media.”

Such action is likely to be led by many of the nearly 150 individuals from around the region who in March participated in an online workshop conducted by PADF’s partner on the project, Facing History and Ourselves. The Massachusetts-based international education and professional development organization engages people in thoughtful examinations of racism, discrimination and anti-Semitism in order to help develop a more humane, informed citizenry.

For the workshop, participants not only learned about the history of Jews and of anti-Semitism in the Americas, but also considered concepts of identity and how myths and stereotypes about certain populations evolve and persist, among other topics. Discussing discrimination against Jews essentially provided a window into examining larger questions about human behavior, said Yael Siman, a professional associate of Facing History and Ourselves and a scholar of Holocaust studies who led the workshop.

“Religion may not potentially be a source for violent conflict in Latin America, except in some communities, but not as a large issue,” said Siman, who is from Mexico but lives in Chicago. “Yet prejudice is certainly strongly embedded in our societies.”

The workshop helped sensitize participants to statements, images and stereotypes that Siman said reflect any type of hatred or prejudice. It also pushed people to question their own assumptions. “It’s this notion of thinking about your own thinking,” she said. “Even your own prejudices, you can question them if you confront yourself with certain inconvenient facts or with the opinion of someone who thinks differently from you.”

In an effort to build on the workshop, participants took part in two live webinars last week where they collaborated with experts to map out ways to replicate workshop lessons in their own communities. A second webinar is scheduled for May 7.

And, as another element of this project, partner organizations in Argentina and Venezuela are documenting incidences of anti-Semitism in public information sources, newspapers, blogs and social media. The attitudes, perceptions and trends they identify will be shared publicly through articles and reports as well as on thewebsite. The effort is meant to serve as a way to inform others, encourage them to defend their rights and promote a more open dialogue about how differing communities can live together peacefully.

Villegas said PADF also hopes to share some of the information they document with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and, if appropriate, United Nations agencies and other international bodies.

“There needs to be more awareness and education on this topic,” she said.

Gillian Gaynair owns Mallett Avenue Media, a Washington, D.C.-based firm specializing in content that shows how foundations, nonprofits and corporations effect change in the U.S. and globally.