The breaking of the daily fast during Ramadan is now also a chance to break down stereotypes and misconceptions.

That's why eight mosques and Muslim centers in the metro area plan to welcome non-Muslims for the traditional fast-breaking meals, or iftars, throughout the sacred month of Ramadan in August.

"We need to tear down these walls slowly but surely," said Najam Qureshi, a board member of Northwest Islamic Community Center's mosque in Hamel, which is participating in the series of iftars. "I think this initiative goes toward that objective."

The Minnesota Council of Churches helps to organize the iftars as part of an interfaith program that has brought Muslims and Christians together for food and conversation for more than five years. This year's version will have the most participation yet from Muslim groups, said Gail Anderson, the council's director of unity and relationships.

"I think there's a lot of curiosity among non-Muslims about Islam and what's going on in Ramadan," Anderson said. "Although people are curious, they're not always comfortable ... they don't know what to expect or do. This is a way to make them feel more comfortable."

During the events, non-Muslims will hear a short presentation about Ramadan. At sunset, the day's fast is broken with sweet dates, water or milk. Muslims then move to a prayer space for sunset (maghrib) prayer, and non-Muslims are welcome to observe, Anderson said.

Afterward, the group shares the iftar meal, which often consists of bread, hummus, rice, lamb, olives and other Middle Eastern fare.

"The real magic happens when people ... sit across the table and their arms are crossed and they're a little nervous," Anderson said. "But by the end of it, people are walking out together and having conversations at their car. You learn your neighbor is like you."

Forging connections

Allan Henden, who attends Lyndale United Church of Christ in Minneapolis, attended an iftar last year at the Muslim Community Center in Bloomington. About 100 people attended, nearly two-thirds them non-Muslims, he said.

"I'm interested to learn more about Islam, but also to develop closer relationships with Muslims," said Henden. "That's what keeps bringing me back to these events."

"I also strongly believe we need to build stronger relationships among people of different faiths and religions in our country in general, to combat some of the divisiveness and misinformation out there."

During Ramadan -- which this year begins after sundown on Sunday -- Muslims abstain from food and drink in hopes of learning patience and humility, increase their acts of worship and spend more time reading the Qur'an. It was during Ramadan, Muslims believe, that the Islamic prophet Mohammed received the first revelations of the Qur'an from God through the angel Gabriel.

The trend is growing

Zafar Siddiqui, president of the Islamic Resource Group, which has given presentations about Islam to churches, businesses and other groups in Minnesota, said influential national Muslim groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations have been encouraging Muslims to invite non-Muslims to their tables during Ramadan.

"I see this trend growing," Siddiqui said. "Many mosques in the Twin Cities welcome visits from non-Muslims and have been holding open houses and educational outreach programs. Ramadan is a month that provides opportunities for people to congregate to break fast together.

"I think mosques are taking advantage of this opportunity to have non-Muslims join them in breaking the fast and get to know the Muslim community on a personal basis. It is extremely important that people get to know each other in person to break the stereotypes and to promote better understanding."

Najam Qureshi, whose mosque in Hamel is participating in the series of iftars, said sharing with non-Muslims leads to "positive growth."

"The more information people have about it [Islam], the better," he said.

Rose French • 612-673-4352