An article by Kristina Gaddy published on OZY.com, tells the unique story of Suriname. She refers to a study by the Pew Research Center that found the tiny South American nation to be the fourth most religiously diverse country in the world after Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Gaddy notes that before the arrival of Europeans, the indigenous population practiced a polytheistic religion.
In the 1500s, Dutch, English and Spanish explorers visited the area. It eventually became Dutch Guyana—a Colony of the Netherlands—a culture known even then for its tolerance to diverse religions.
The Dutch, a Christian people, permitted the practice of other religions. As early as 1632, Gaddy points out, the Dutch colony accepted Jewish settlers who had been thrown out of Brazil and other South American colonies. She quotes Dr. Eli Rosenblatt, a research associate in the department of theology at Georgetown University: “The colonial government offered Jews in Dutch Guyana extraordinary autonomy in an atmosphere of liberal toleration.” They were permitted to own land, run their own schools, build synagogues and even raise their own militias to protect their plantations.
“Those liberal attitudes didn’t extend to enslaved Africans and people of African descent who worked the plantations,” writes Gaddy, “but their religion, Winti, was allowed to flourish. The spiritual practice combines African religions with Jewish, Christian and indigenous influences. Today, Winti is still a cultural practice among some Afro-Surinamese in Paramaribo and a religion practiced by Maroons who escaped slavery and formed tribes in the interior of the country.”
With the influx of indentured workers from China, India and Java in the late 1800s, the religious landscape changed again as these people brought with them their own religious beliefs—Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam.
Despite the country’s great diversity, there is cooperation and tolerance among the different faiths. Referring to research of Dr. Kirtie Algoe of Suriname’s Anton de Kom University, Gaddy points out that religion often played a role in 20th-century intramural conflicts but the country “found ways to prevent that kind of damage to the social fabric.… In an era when religious discrimination and violence seem to be increasing, the world might do well to study and learn from Suriname’s quietly effective experiment in tolerance.”
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