The Muslim holy month of Ramadan began this week, and the Minnesota Council of Churches is inviting Minnesotans to break bread with their Muslim neighbors — and to help break the negative reactions to the Islamic faith.

About 20 mosques and Islamic centers around the state are opening their doors to visitors to participate in a tour and "iftar," a breaking of the daily fast that occurs during the four weeks of Ramadan. The joint dinners provide an informal setting for Minnesotans to get to know more about the Muslim people and their religion.

Likewise, a new campaign to demonstrate public support for Muslims was launched this week, as churches and homeowners posted signs on their lawns announcing "To Our Muslim Neighbors: Blessed Ramadan." Hundreds more supporters are expected to print and post the signs, available on the council's website, in the weeks ahead.

The projects are reminders that "Minnesota is respectful of religious differences," said the Rev. Peg Chemberlin, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Churches.

"We were seeing significant negative pushback toward the Muslim community, sometimes at a neighborhood level, sometimes in the political rhetoric," Chemberlin said. "This is an opportunity for folks of good will to respond to that."

Asad Zaman, executive director of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, said the lawn sign campaign sends a message.

"If I see a sign, it tells me that the person believes this country belongs to everyone, that no one should be excluded," said Zaman. "There is a vast reservoir of good will among people. The Blessed Ramadan signs allow that to be expressed."

The sign campaign started with 17 churches and hundreds of signs this week. Dozens more churches have since taken steps to download and post the signs, said Chemberlin. Signs are posted at churches ranging from St. Luke Presbyterian Church in Minnetonka, to Gloria Dei Lutheran in St. Paul, to Pilgrim Congregational Church in Duluth. The Councils of Churches in other states also are printing out the signs, including in New York, Washington and Ohio.

Meanwhile, Minnesotans curious about Ramadan, or just curious about Muslims, are invited to participate in a shared meal and tour of a mosque or community center through the council's "Taking Heart" project. About 700 people attended last year, said Chemberlin. And about 1 in 4 had never before talked to a Muslim, said Zaman, whose organization is a sponsor of the events.

"Its primary goal is to build bridges by helping people make personal connections," Zaman said. "I think it's more important than ever, especially in this climate of hate."

Late last year, for example, a Muslim woman at a Coon Rapids restaurant was struck in the face with a beer mug, and a Somali restaurant in Fargo was set afire by an arsonist. "This is real," Zaman said.

Chemberlin, meanwhile, is heartened by the reception received by the two initiatives. She calls the Blessed Ramadans popping up "signs of good will."

To register for a Ramadan dinner, or download lawn signs, go to www.mnchurches.org.