SÃO PAULO – In the pope’s home nation of Argentina, encompassing both Jewish and Muslim populations which are among the largest in South America, the strains of the war between Israel and Hamas are increasingly taking a toll.
A meeting between the Catholic Church and the leading Muslim organization in Argentina on Nov. 14 signaled that interfaith dialogue may still be possible, but also highlighted the challenges.
In Argentina a large Jewish community estimated at 300,000 people coexists with one of the greatest Muslim populations in Latin America, thought to encompass at least 700,000 people.
According to some Muslim leaders in the country, since the Hamas attacks on October 7, the Argentine media has been covering the issue with considerable doses of Islamophobia. They complain that most TV shows fail to invite Muslims to debates, and that the views expressed in most of them tend to be pro-Israel and anti-Islam.
The effects of that alleged biased coverage, they say, are being felt by people in their daily lives. Human rights organizations and Muslim entities have been reporting an increasing number of incidents in which individuals perceived as Muslims, especially women wearing headscarves, have been verbally or physically attacked on the street or other public locations.
On the inter-religious front, the most complex incident involving Jews and Muslims concerned an article published on Oct. 18 in La Nación, a major Argentinian newspaper, and later republished on the website of AMIA, the most important Jewish organization in the country.
With the title “Those are the same beasts”, it was authored by AMIA’s legal advisor Miguel Bronfman.
While Bronfman focused on criticizing insurgent groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, which he called “beasts,” he attributed violence and terror to Islam as a whole, according to some Muslims in Argentina.
Mentioning Hamas’s foundational documents, Bronfman selected parts in which the group employs religious rhetoric.
“Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam annihilates it, as it previously annihilated others,” said Hamas’s charter in a paragraph selected by Bronfman in his article.
Many saw those parts of the article as an effort to directly identify Anti-Semitism and violence with Islam as a whole.
Muslim entities such as the Islamic Center of the Republic of Argentina (known by its Spanish acronym CIRA) expected and wanted churches to issue statements defending Muslims from such criticism, but complain that nothing has been done.
On Oct. 27, CIRA criticized the interfaith movement’s silence during such a critical time.
“We think that the interfaith dialogue movement did not give the adequate response to the aggressions suffered by our religion. Catholics and Evangelicals, not to mention Jews, didn’t say anything about them ,” Hasan El Bacha, CIRA’s secretary general, told Crux.
El Bacha said the Muslim community in Argentina has supported other faiths when they suffered attacks, citing the example of presidential candidate Javier Milei, who has insulted Pope Francis on several occasions over the past few years and especially during his campaign.
“We came to the public and denounced Milei’s attitude of disrespect to the pontiff,” El Bacha said.
Despite CIRA’s objection to a perceived lack of solidarity with Muslims, a meeting with Catholic leaders scheduled before the beginning of the war was held Nov. 14.
“Our intention was to introduce ourselves to the new Archbishop of Buenos Aires [Rev. Jorge García Cuerva, who assumed the office in May 2023],” El Bacha said.
The Muslim and Catholic leaders discussed several themes, including the situation in Gaza and the tensions in the interfaith dialogue.
“They heard us when we told them that many pictures were taken [with members of different faiths], but not much happened after that,” El Bacha said.
Despite the difficulties, the discussion ended up with a renovated commitment to walk side by side, he said. Catholics and Muslims agreed to pray together at the mosque in the near future.
“I think that the scar has healed, and we hope that one day the scars concerning the Jewish community in Argentina will also heal,” El Bacha said, saying some Jews have taken part in pro-Palestine marches in Buenos Aires side by side with Muslims.
Father Carlos White, in charge of the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires’s ecumenism and interfaith dialogue commission, told Crux that the Church has been focusing on the mediation of the relations between Muslims and Jews.
“The Church can’t take sides in a moment like this. Our commitment is to mediate the conflictual relationship, and to work to loosen the hard attitudes assumed by all sides in the dispute,” he said.
White said that Church leaders such as the pontiff and the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, have provided relevant guidelines to Catholic mediators in the whole world with their “balanced, wise stances on the war.”
“We always need to recognize that violence on both sides is unacceptable and that we need to work for the victims. We need to promote the idea of a ceasefire and of pacification,” he reasoned.
White has been taking part in meetings with Muslims and Jews since the war began, and said he believes that only when the violence diminishes in Gaza will interfaith dialogue be fully resumed in Argentina.
Urgent domestic issues, however, could reshape the landscape. According to El Bacha, CIRA and the Catholic leaders of Buenos Aires also discussed pressing themes such as bills concerning euthanasia that are under analysis in Congress and the upcoming Argentinian elections on Nov. 19.
Milei, one of two contenders in a runoff for the presidency, has criticized Pope Francis and the Church’s social doctrine on several occasions. As a consequence, leasders of the Argentinian church have more or less campaigned directly against him, breaking with a general tradition of trying to remain non-aligned.
A Catholic who frequently says that he is close to Judaism, Milei has been expressing total support to Israel’s attacks on Gaza. He has already promised he would move the Argentinian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and also said that Israel would be the first country he would visit if he is elected.
“We’re worried about Milei’s policies concerning religions if he’s elected next Sunday. One can understand that he is more connected to a religion than with the others, but not that he will oppose any of them,” El Bacha said.