During the annual Ramadan fast, Muslims do not eat or drink anything from sunrise to sunset, and then end each day with a festive meal called Iftar. On the evening of August 25, the Iftar meal offered a chance to further peace and understanding among members of all three Abrahamic traditions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. During the Sixth Annual Dialogue Iftar Dinner, members of all three religions sat down to break bread and get to know one another.
A crowd of nearly two hundred people gathered at the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota to hear speeches, eat a traditional Turkish meal, talk and learn. The event was sponsored by the interfaith Niagara Foundation‘s Minnesota branch, the Turkish American Society of Minnesota (TASMIN) and the U of M student-run Bosphorus Dialogue Association.
According to a show of hands, about a third of those attending were Muslim. For the other two-thirds, it was a chance to learn about Ramadan traditions. Speakers from all three religions offered reflections on the spiritual theme of fasting.
Makram Nu’man El-Amin, the religious leader of Masjid An-Nur, a North Minneapolis mosque said that Ramadan is about self-development, “being a little bit better person than who we were.”
“It’s a month of charity, hospitality, forgiveness, unity, and self mastery to bring our will to be the will of God,” he said. “We fast to appreciate life in its wholeness. Fasting is holding yourself back for your own betterment and to learn self-restraint.”
Most important, he said, was creating understanding between human beings. “Labels – ethnic, religious and otherwise become less important than value based relationships.”
Catherine Cory, Associate Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of St. Thomas, spoke about the meaning of the Christian tradition of fasting during Lent, the forty days leading up to Easter. Steve Lear, founder of NECHAMA, a Jewish volunteer disaster response organization, spoke about the 24-hour sundown to sundown food and water fast on Yom Kipper, the Jewish Day of Atonement.
In addition to the scheduled speakers, other community leaders from across the Twin Cities attended the dinner.
Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said that the dinner was a chance for progress in inter-religious and intercultural understanding. “I’m a great believer in dialogue as a step toward better communication and a better world,” he said. “Using this religious occasion is a good way to bring people together.”
State Senator Sandy Pappas, said she had recently returned from one of the Niagara Foundation’s intercultural trips to Turkey, “along with two former legislators, two state senators, two house members and various friends and family.”
“What was most interesting was the politics,” she said. “There’s a struggle between efforts for Turkey to become a modern country and being religious people, something we have achieved in the United States but in Turkey still causes tension.”
Ralph Boelter, Special Agent in Charge of the Minneapolis Division of the FBI spoke to support the event. “We face many challenges, as intense as they’ve ever been,” he said. “My experience is that dialogue alone is not enough. There has to be action [toward understanding.] It can be something small, but there needs to be action.”
St. Paul Chief of Police Thomas Smith said that what brought everyone to the dinner was the common bond of peace, despite differences. “Minneapolis and St. Paul is one of the most diverse communities in the country,” he said. “But, we get along with each other because we all want peace.”
He said that it might seem strange to some that a police chief would be talking about peace, but he said the job of the police was to promote public safety, to keep the peace with partnerships and to enforce the law. “If we do one and two well, we don’t have to do number three. “Partnership,” he said, “is where true peace comes from.”
Muran Ergen, President of the Niagara Foundation’s local chapter, came originally from Turkey but is now an American citizen. He said that his organization hopes to contribute to having people of various religions learn about other’s traditions and about each other as people. “There is no right or wrong culture,” he said. “We put people at the same table to talk and we can get to know each other. This is how we can contribute to diversity.”