Why you should care
Because we can learn a lot from Suriname’s live-and-let-live traditions and policies.
Walk the streets of Paramaribo, Suriname’s capital, and you’ll come across the largest wooden Catholic cathedral in the world, the largest mosque in the Caribbean, a synagogue with a Jewish congregation that dates to the 1700s, a market where women sell traditional charms and potions used in the Winti religion and Hindu temples. Nestled between Guyana and the French overseas department of Guiana, Suriname is the smallest country in South America. But according to a study from the Pew Research Center:
Suriname is the fourth most religiously diverse country in the world.
Leading the way (in descending order) are Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam. Suriname’s multiplicity is a product of colonialism and the arrival of ethnic groups from around the world. The first inhabitants hereabouts were indigenous groups that practiced a polytheistic religion. In the 1500s, Dutch, English and Spanish explorers visited the area, with the Dutch eventually establishing the colony of Dutch Guyana.
Known for advocating religious freedom, the Dutch colonists were Christian, but as early as 1632, they accepted Jewish settlers who had been thrown out of Brazil and other South American colonies. “The colonial government offered Jews in Dutch Guyana extraordinary autonomy in an atmosphere of liberal toleration,” says Dr. Eli Rosenblatt, a research associate in the department of theology at Georgetown University. Jews were allowed to own land, run their own schools, build synagogues and even raise their own militias to protect their plantations — the most liberal policies in the world at that time, Rosenblatt notes.
Those liberal attitudes didn’t extend to enslaved Africans and people of African descent who worked the plantations, 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.
By the late 1800s, indentured workers from China, India and Java brought Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam to the Dutch colony. Today, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam are the largest faiths, and yet, even with this diversity, there is little, if any, religious conflict.
“In our region, these three religions are, by and large, harmonious, which is natural to us, but not that natural [in a larger context],” says Dr. Kirtie Algoe, a researcher at the Anton de Kom University in Suriname. She notes that religion often played a role in countries’ intramural conflicts during the 20th century, but Suriname found ways to prevent that kind of damage to the social fabric.
Algoe says that education has played a role in the traditional acceptance of other faiths, with schools emphasizing the need for religious understanding and making comparisons between religious holidays, like Holi and Easter. Religious cooperation is also formalized with the Interreligieuze Raad in Suriname (IRIS), an interreligious council with representatives from the major faiths and sects within those religions. The council is vocal in politics, presenting a unified moral view on issues.
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.