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Suriname's racial diversity not utopian

At this country's largest mosque, a gleaming white structure dominated by four towering minarets, Annette Ayub, a woman of Christian and Hindu parents who practices no religion, watches over the grounds. Her husband, who is of Pakistani descent, is the mosque's muezzin. When asked if she is resented by the Moslems who gather nearby for prayer, Mrs. Ayub said with surprise: "Never, this is Suriname and I am Surinamese."

Next door to the mosque, with no fence in between, is Neve Shalom, Suriname's oldest functioning synagogue, where every Saturday about 20 Jews come to pray.

This congregation is largely made up of Creoles, or mixed-raced blacks, in this case, descendants of the Portuguese Jews who came here in the 17th century to start new lives and Africans brought here for slave labor.

"When I travel I tell people, "If it can happen here, why not everywhere else?' " Rene Fernandes, the 62-year-old chairman of the synagogue, said of the country's striking mixture of disparate peoples, and of the air of tolerance that has allowed Jews and Moslems to worship in harmony, side by side. "But Suriname is definitely not like anywhere else," he said.

In this capital city's dusty streets, with their faded and decaying wooden clapboard homes and stately mahogany trees that cast refreshing pools of shade, East Indians and indigenous Indians, Chinese, Dutch, Indonesian and African peoples _ and people of every conceivable Creole combination _ mill about together.

Binding them, in a country of 400,000 people where almost everyone speaks at least one and often several of 13 other languages, is Sranan Tongo, or Suriname speak, an amalgam of African languages and plantation-era English, with a smattering of Portuguese and other languages.

But Suriname, which anthropologists say is one of the most diverse nations in the world, is not quite a racial utopia.

For the last four years, Maroons, the descendants of slaves who escaped plantations in the 17th century, have been waging a guerrilla war against the army, and indigenous Indian groups have recently taken up arms as well.

Political parties here have been organized largely along racial lines since before independence from the Netherlands in 1975, leading to an ever-shifting game of alliances and coalitions, whose inevitable tensions nonetheless have rarely spread to the streets.

For much of the tiny population, tolerance and integration, elusive goals in many mixed societies, have been largely attained, giving way to another challenge, preserving cultural identities.

Since 1945, Frederick Koorndyke has been meeting regularly with friends whose shared mission is recapturing their African religious and cultural past.

More than half of the estimated 323,000 slaves brought to these shores came from Ghana's Akan tribes and neighboring groups.

While many Akan expressions and traditions have survived among Suriname's Maroons, much theology and culture has been lost.

Traveling to Ghana, amassing a library and organizing classes, Koorndyke and others have struggled to reawaken Surinamese blacks to their roots.

"When I was a schoolboy, our teacher once told everyone to learn about their culture," Koorndyke said. "I alone had nowhere to turn, which is something we can't allow children here to suffer anymore."