News from Chile

Even before being constructed, the planned Baha´i temple in Santiago, Chile is causing heated debate within that country. The magnificent temple which will have 9 alabaster petals, a capacity for 600 people and stand as high as a 10 story building is planned to begin construction in 2005. But first, a location will have to be found.The Baha´i community always thought that the temple would be situated on a plot of land outside of the Chilean capital. However, just as they began the process of requesting construction permits and such, the government of Chile, specifically the Bicentenary Commission approached the Baha´is of Chile with a surprising and generous offer. They asked the Baha´is to relocate the temple from outside the city to the Metropolitan Park situated on a prominent Northern hill just outside the city center.

This offer, made public in mid December, set off a huge debate within the political and public arenas. Chile, like most South American countries is full of Roman Catholic and Evangelical Christians and it is logical for the people, as well as the Churches, to be shocked by the offer to cede so much land and of such high caliber to a religion wholly unfamiliar to most Chileans. As well, the timing of the leaked information was inflammatory, coming at a time of deep religious significance. According to one politician who railed against the offer, “it makes no sense that the Bicentenary Commission has offered such land to a religion which has not even contributed one paragraph to the written history of Chile”.

The Bicentenary Commission was created to oversee different acts and events for the commemoration (on September 18th 2010) of the 200th anniversary of the Republic of Chile. And although it is under the supervision of Ministry of Housing, its function is strictly defined. In hindsight, it shouldn’t have been the organization to make such an offer because it automatically opened itself up for much deserved criticism.

It seems that the Baha´i community of Chile has an uphill (forgive the pun) battle to fight as the vast majority of Chileans know nothing about them nor their beliefs. They are therefore, easily mislead by erroneous reports by journalists who use the word “sect” to describe the Baha´i Faith. And in general they are ignorant of the basic facts related to the Baha´i Faith and can´t really be expected to be able to make a sound judgment call about the question. There has been no organized, public response by the Baha´is of Chile, either in rejecting the offer or in fighting in the political and public arena to ensure its success.

However, it is important to note that this whole debate was an entirely internal matter and true to form, the Baha´is did not side with nor entered the debate even. Also, it must be pointed out that the offer was not to simply give the Baha´i community of Chile the land in the park. This is a common misinformation spread within the Baha´i world community. Due to the legal ownership of the park lands on the hillside of Dos Gemelos, it is not possible to transfer title, instead, the offer was to lease the land for 50 years in return for relatively little consideration. Presumably, the lease would have been extended at its end. As well, there were numerous conditions to the offer and the non-compliance of any one of them would present the danger of the land and everything else reverting back to the government.

It didn´t take long for the Islamic community to throw in their two cents. Their reaction was predictable: vehemently negative. At the start of the hubbub, they announced that they may hold a press conference to discuss the Baha´i Faith, which they consider to be “adversarial” to Islam.

According to Mockenburg, one of the two Chilean politican most opposed to the idea, “they [Bicentenary Commission] have chosen the least appropriate place, but not only that: it strikes one as odd that they give this land to a religion practically insignificant and one which does not exist in Chile. For now, there is nothing constructed, because it is planned to begin in the middle of 2005, but what does the Baha´i religion have to do with our country and specifically, the Bicentenary Commission?”

In actuality, the Baha´i community of Chile numbers around 15,000. Roughly one for approximately a thousand Chileans.

Other politicans defended the offer made by the Commission saying that they don´t see it as a religious matter at all, but rather, recognize in it an opportunity to revitalize an area of the city and perhaps gain international accolades for the architectural qualities of the project. It is reasonable for them to think along these lines, especially as the Lotus Temple in India has shown just how powerful and prestigious such structures are and how positively they impact their immediate surroundings. As well, among urban planners the “Guggenheim effect” has also gained popularity after the revitalization that the city of Bilbao, Spain experienced with the location of the van guardian structure designed by Canadian-born architect, Frank Gehry.

One Chilean expert on sects and religions who has published a book on the Baha´i Faith said that if this decision goes forward, it may set a dangerous precedent where other small groups will expect equal treatment from the government. As well, many people argued against the location of the temple in the Metropolitan Park because they believe that the Commission should not give away land which is the right of all Chileans. To them it is not appropriate to cede such a public place to a specific group or organization. The politicans in favour of the decision pointed out that once constructed, the temple would be open to all the peoples of the world, regardless of religious affiliation, color or creed. And that the Baha´i Faith is a religion devoid of any form of clergy or fixed special ceremonies.

It would be wrong, however, to categorize the opposition to this offer as led by the Catholic Church. The Commission, itself has several members as representatives of the Catholic Church and they were the ones who made the original recommendation. Instead, it appears that most of the opposition to the idea came from misinformed public opinion as well as Evangelical churches and politician members of these churches who could not imagine the idea of an obscure religion putting down such prominent roots in their city.

The whole debate concluded as fast as it arose and having been one sided from the start, it was lost rather easily. The Baha´is, it seems, were happy to stand back and allow the people and government of Chile to make the final decision, knowing that they are not bound at all, to even accept the offer, where it to be confirmed and finalized. They refused to be drawn in to a debate or argument, only limiting themselves to correcting, when the opportunity arose, misinformation about themselves, their intentions and their faith.

Finally, an excuse was used to scrap the whole thing altogether: it seems that the zoning permits in the area of the park only allow a 3 story high building to be constructed and since the temple is atleast 10 storeys the project is not possible. The idea that such zoning restrictions can and sometimes is ammended was brushed aside. One gets the feeling that everyone involved, the politicians on both sides, as well as the Baha´is, simply want the conflict to go away.

So the search goes on for a location with the clock ticking (construction is supposed to begin in mid 2005). But the temple of Santiago seems to have garnered a unique distinction. Even before being built it is living up to its monicker of a “silent teacher”.

For an update on the Temple in Chile, click here and here (bottom of page).