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Paradise in Brazil

text by Fidel Madeira with photographs by Izan Petterle

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On a cool Sunday morning in early April, parishioners fill the pews of the Melkite Greek Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Paradise in São Paulo, Brazil.

Numerous icons adorn the walls of the cathedral’s stunning nave. The two most precious icons figure prominently on the iconostasis, an icon screen dividing the sanctuary from the nave: Christ Pantocrator (Christ the Righteous Judge) and Theotokos (Mother of God). Overhead, a Byzantine–style mural of the crucified Christ covers the ceiling. Above the scene are painted in Greek the words “Triumph of Christ.”

Moments later, when the clock strikes 11, Archbishop Fares Maakaroun enters holding up the Book of the Gospels. A hush falls on the congregation, and the liturgy commences.

Located in the Paraíso (Portuguese for paradise) neighborhood in the heart of South America’s largest city and steps from its busiest thoroughfare, Paulista Avenue, the imposing Byzantine–style cathedral seems an unlikely landmark.

Yet, the cathedral and the Arab parishioners who built it have defined Paraíso since the 1940’s when construction began. By then, many of São Paulo’s Arab Christian immigrant families were living in the working–class neighborhood. In subsequent decades, the Arab community steadily grew, at times in sudden bursts, when emigrants fled conflict in Lebanon, Syria or elsewhere in the Middle East in search of a better life in the New World. Hearing about the opportunities in Brazil — often from relatives or friends already in Paraíso — São Paulo quickly became a preferred destination.

Today, the cathedral serves as the seat of the bishop of Our Lady of Paradise in São Paulo, spiritual home to an estimated 400,000 people — the largest Melkite Greek community not only in the Americas but in the world.

Though Paraíso remains the center of Brazil’s Melkite cultural and spiritual life, its demographics have changed dramatically in recent years. Social success and economic prosperity among first– and second–generation Melkite Arab–Brazilians have prompted most to choose more affluent residential communities in São Paulo and its sprawling suburbs.

Fortunately, some longtime residents remain to preserve the neighborhood’s historic Arabic flavor. Strolling Paraíso’s streets, one finds no shortage of Arab–owned restaurants, serving up traditional Middle Eastern cuisine, such as falafel, kibbeh, tajine and hummus. Many of these establishments so far have withstood the test of time, having remained in their families for several generations.

After the liturgy, a small group of parishioners approaches the altar and passes through a door leading to a spacious community hall. There, they gather to socialize and enjoy refreshments. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee and the sound of casual conversations in Arabic and Portuguese fill the air. Archbishop Fares, too, joins his flock and mingles with them.

Among the parishioners is 94–year–old Alice Salemi. Mrs. Salemi has spent her entire life in Paraíso and bears witness to nearly a century of its dynamic history. Her parents immigrated to the neighborhood from Lebanon. Born in Paraíso, she and her husband lived and reared their children there.

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Tags: Emigration Melkite Greek Catholic Church Arabs Assimilation Brazil