In late 2007, Sheikh Hassan al-Burji arrived in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, to become the senior mullah at the Mosque of the Prophet Muhammad. Known to his flock of Lebanese Shiite traders as “Padre,” Hassan had spent all of his 28 years growing up in Lebanon and studying in an Iranian seminary. He had never been to South America.
When I met him soon after his arrival, he still looked as wide-eyed as a freshman at a Vassar orientation, and unsure whether he had chosen wisely by forsaking the gardens of Qom for the buzz of Ciudad del Este. He came partly out of duty: the office of Grand Ayatollah Muhammed Hussein Fadlallah, the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, had asked him to choose between Paraguay and the Côte d’Ivoire. Finding neither option attractive, he opted for the more challenging. The city was then even filthier and more crime-ridden than today—a smugglers’ paradise and a border entrepôt for knockoff goods, weapons, and other contraband destined for across the river in Argentina and Brazil—and hardly the natural habitat for a bookish mullah.
“People here think only about money, not about Islam,” he complained. Although South America’s Shiites are among Hezbollah’s biggest donors outside the Middle East, Hassan thought his congregants were all too obsessed with selling mobile phones, and too little devoted to God and prayer. I saw Hassan’s thick eyebrows knit in sorrow when he talked about missing his beloved teacher, the exiled Saudi marjah Sayyid Munir al‑Sayyid ’Adnan al‑Khabaz, and I mentally gave him six months, tops, before he fled back to Iran.