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NEWS FEATURE: A Spiritual Traveler’s Guide to Pluralistic Curacao

c. 2004 Religion News Service WILLEMSTAD, Curacao _ For once, the postcards don’t need embellishment: The Dutch colonial buildings, their clay-red roofs set against an azure sky, are arrayed in a technicolor palette of maize, turquoise, emerald, hot pink and aquamarine. Residents are fond of saying that the many-hued buildings lining St. Anna Bay in […]

c. 2004 Religion News Service

WILLEMSTAD, Curacao _ For once, the postcards don’t need embellishment: The Dutch colonial buildings, their clay-red roofs set against an azure sky, are arrayed in a technicolor palette of maize, turquoise, emerald, hot pink and aquamarine. Residents are fond of saying that the many-hued buildings lining St. Anna Bay in historic Willemstad, capital of Curacao, resemble a child’s paint box.

The island’s religious heritage is similarly varied.

Located 60 miles off the coast of Venezuela, whose oil the island refines into a variety of petroleum products, Curacao is a dot of Europe in the Caribbean Sea, Spanish from 1499 until the Dutch conquest in 1634. Still part of the Dutch kingdom’s Netherlands Antilles, it is spiced generously with Spanish, Portuguese, West Indian and African influences.

While 80 percent of the island’s 135,000 denizens are Roman Catholic, Curacao is also home to thriving Muslim and Hindu communities, Seventh-day Adventist and a few ramshackle Pentecostal churches, and the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western hemisphere. Throw in a few adherents of Syncretismo _ a blend of Afro-Caribbean voodoo and animist beliefs _ and the place can be positively intoxicating for the spiritual traveler.

The Netherlands Antilles does something unusual: All clergy on the islands are on the government payroll. The state also directly funds Catholic education, but otherwise respects the separation of church and state.

Curacao encourages live-and-let-live tolerance toward all faiths. While officials politely acknowledge low-level racial tensions, no one here talks of religious strife.

How did these islands, with their Dutch Reformed heritage, become so Catholic?

“The early Protestants who were in charge allowed the Catholic missionaries to evangelize only to African slaves,” explains Monsignor Luis Antonio Secco, the soft-spoken Bishop of Willemstad. In time, the low Protestant birth rate was outstripped by the Catholic one, and once slaves were freed, their faith became dominant.

Sixteen of the island’s 23 Catholic parishes have youth groups and most have priests.

But Secco, an Italian native and member of the Silesian order, laments that only a quarter of the island’s Catholics attend church regularly and “the best of our youth” leave for Holland.

Outmigration is a concern shared by Rene Maduro, a gruff but amiable man who introduces himself as the “18-time past president” of Congregation Mikva Israel-Emanuel, a stone’s throw from Willemstad’s tony shopping district. Located behind a canary yellow outer wall and through an entrance inside a cool courtyard lined with potted palms, the “Snoa,” as locals call it, is a sublime Sephardic structure modeled on the Esnoge, the grand Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam.

The 500 or so Jewish souls on the island, with surnames like Henriquez, Capriles and Jesurun, are descendants of Jews who fled the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions to freedom in Amsterdam, referred to locally as the “new Jerusalem.”

From there, 12 families were lured by the Dutch West Indies Co. to farm Curacao, where they founded a synagogue, Mikva Israel, on Plantation De Hoop (The Hope) in 1651, 17 years after the arrival of the first Jew, Samuel Cohen, a translator for the Dutch fleet. The current synagogue, the result of a merger with the Reform Temple Emanuel, was consecrated on Passover in 1732 and is still going strong.

Visitors will note the heavy mahogany pews, pulpit and ark where the 18 Torah scrolls are stored; the four white columns, one each for Judaism’s matriarchs; and the massive copper chandeliers whose candles are lit on special occasions.

But the most striking aspect is the thick carpet of fine, beige sand on the floor. As in other Caribbean synagogues, it’s meant to remind worshippers that their Converso ancestors used the material to muffle the sounds of their secret prayers.

It’s also meant, as Maduro explains, to recall God’s promise to Abraham to multiply his seed “as the sand upon the seashore.”

But Jewish leaders worry about sustaining their numbers. The mean age of the community is late 50s and few young people who leave to study in Holland or the U.S. return.

There’s no need to have the synagogue declared a historical venue, Maduro smiles. All of Willemstad was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. There is no anti-Semitism on the island and relations with churches and the 1,000 Muslims, according to Maduro, are “excellent.”

Sheikh Adnan Rayahha, imam at the unassuming green-and-white Islamic Center of Curacao, boosts the number of Muslims on the island to 2,500, all Sunnis, and most originally from Lebanon and Syria. Rayahha himself arrived from Syria a year ago.

Rayahha says Muslims began coming to Curacao about a century ago. The mosque, which holds about 200 worshippers, was established in 1964.

“The situation is very good here,” he says. “We have no enemies here.”

Last year, eight Muslims from Curacao made the expensive hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, and the community hopes to send more next time.

High on a windblown hill overlooking Willemstad, the sleek all-marble Hindu Temple of Curacao opened April 4 for the 1,200 or so Hindus who have called Curacao home for 70 years. The community has imported a young priest from Benares, India, in addition to an array of statues of various deities, and hopes to add a crematorium in two years.

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