Imam Ahmed Aboubadria is a healer of the soul, not the body. But he readily agreed to have his Eden Prairie mosque converted into a COVID-19 vaccination site last week to inoculate Muslim faithful in preparation for Ramadan, which begins Monday night.

His mosque is among at least 16 in Minnesota that have set up makeshift vaccine spaces and waiting rooms in the past 10 days. More than 7,000 people have been vaccinated in a campaign designed to reach a community underserved by the vaccine rollout, despite being among those most at risk.

"I think this is a fantastic idea," said Aboubadria, sitting at his desk in the Al-Tawba Masjid as a steady stream of people rolled up their sleeves down the hall for the vaccine.

"Ramadan is a time of worship and prayer and family get-togethers," he said. "This offers people the ability to come to the masjid, the mosque, and practice their faith in a safe way."

Last year, COVID-19 safety rules required mosques to shut down during Ramadan, leaving Muslims to mark this most sacred and social holiday season inside the confines of their homes. Solemn prayers typically held inside mosques, led by imams and in the company of friends, was a cherished memory. All worship was online.

To make it more safe and comfortable for congregants to return this year, several Muslim leaders approached the office of Gov. Tim Walz to propose a vaccination campaign this spring to reach the Muslim community right before Ramadan — the monthlong period of reflection and daily fasting for Muslims around the world. The Minnesota Department of Health approved the plan.

"People are very eager to go back to the mosque," said Imam Asad Zaman, executive director of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, who led the campaign. "That's why this vaccination is so important."

The state Department of Health allocated the vaccines as part of its efforts to reach racial and ethnic groups with less vaccine access. In addition, Ramsey County set up two mobile vaccine sites last weekend offering 400 doses for the Muslim community.

"The goal was to offer this before Ramadan, so that people won't be feeling the effect of the shot while they are fasting and fatigued," said Chris Burns, spokesman for St. Paul-Ramsey County Public Health Department.

Mosques transformed

Salima and Rahim Virani were among the Muslims who drove to Al-Tawba Masjid on Thursday afternoon. Because the vaccine would require women to roll up their sleeves and bare their arms, which is generally not permitted inside mosques, Salima Virani was ushered into an office reserved for women while her husband took off his shoes and headed to the large prayer hall where men registered.

The hall, with plush burgundy carpet, was divided into two waiting areas and held several tables where medical professionals poked the arms of guests. Everyone received the one-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine, which Zaman said he specifically requested because of the time crunch of impending Ramadan.

The Viranis, from Eden Prairie, sat together on folding chairs during their post-vaccine wait. They said they were relieved to get the vaccine, and so were their children, who were eager to get back to the mosque to see their friends.

Praying alone in one's house, even decorated for Ramadan as it was last year, is not nearly as meaningful as being part of a group, they said.

"When there is a gathering of people, you feel that force, that oneness," Salima Virani explained.

Safety rules continue

Even with many newly vaccinated congregants, mosques plan to continue safety measures, said Aboubadria. In addition to masks and social distancing, the faithful must bring their own prayer rugs to the Eden Prairie mosque, or at least use the large strips of paper next to the prayer room to kneel on.

Zaman and two others, for example, knelt in afternoon prayer at Al-Tawba Masjid on the white papers, in an unusual juxtaposition of solemn prayer just yards from people resting after a COVID vaccine.

In addition to these health precautions, mosques such as Masjid Al-Kareem at the Northwest Islamic Community Center in Plymouth are asking even vaccinated people to register for its most popular prayer services. But people won't be turned away if there is space available, said Sarah Alam, a center board member.

However, the beloved tradition of breaking daylong fasts with a community meal at the mosque remains on hold until the risk of the pandemic has subsided, local imams said.

At the Abubakar As-Sadique Islamic Center in south Minneapolis, staff monitoring the vaccine rollout Thursday said they were feeling optimistic about safety and attendance during the holiday. They even repositioned the pink stickers on the prayer carpet that indicated where people could be, placing them a bit closer together to accommodate the expected increase in guests, said mosque youth director Abdallahi Adan.

"And we did a deep clean of the whole place," said Adan, surveying the large prayer area, divided by a black curtain that separated the vaccine site from Muslims at prayer.

People who had signed up for the vaccines were greeted by outreach volunteer Mohamed Rashad, who offered a friendly "thank you for coming to our mosque" before escorting them to the registration table. After the vaccines, he offered bottles of water to those in the waiting area.

Many people coming to the mosques were not Muslims — that wasn't a requirement. Though not a goal of the plan, the vaccines wound up demystifying Muslims for visitors who had never set foot in a mosque.

Kurt Froehlich was sitting in the recovery area at the Minneapolis Islamic center. He said he didn't know what to expect when he signed on for his vaccine at a mosque. But it was perfectly comfortable, he said.

"I go to a church to vote, so to go to a mosque for a vaccine seemed perfectly fine," said Froehlich.

Although the vaccine campaign's purpose was to reach the underserved Muslim community, when the registrations did not fill up quickly enough, the lists were opened up to the general public and posted on popular online vaccine sites.

Zaman said the challenge was that Muslim leaders chose some of the fastest-available dates to meet the Ramadan deadline, which didn't offer mosque leaders much time to reach out to members. He has requested an additional 3,000 vaccines from the state.

"Muslims, unlike a lot of white people, are not sitting at home on their computers searching for vaccines," said Zaman. "That is the meaning of equity and the reason for this, to level the paying field."

Muslims agree that this year's Ramadan will be a ray of sunshine compared with last year's all-virtual events. Mosques have been gradually reopening over the past months, with limited capacity. Now many are decorating with banners and lights and eagerly anticipating the return of worshipers.

The vaccines are icing on the cake.

Said Alam: "It is exciting to have that feel of Ramadan again."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511