Forty-year-old wheelchair-bound Muslim street beggar Rahima Begum spends much of her time around the strikingly modern Kamalapur central railway station in the southern part of Bangladeshi capital Dhaka.
Ten-year-old Jharna accompanies her mother as she pleads for alms, often until late at night.
But during the Islamic holy fasting month of Ramadan, Rahima finishes begging early then lines up with hundreds of other poor people at the gate of the Dharmarajik Buddhist Temple and Monastery in Kamalapur.
The Organization for Promotion of Buddhist Culture in Bangladesh has for two decades been administering the provision by monks of ‘iftar’ fast-breaking evening meals to poor Muslims during Ramadan.
“Buddhists are great people with love for poor people like us,” Rahima told ucanews.com before collecting two iftar food boxes from the monks on the evening of May 21.
“I think rich Muslims should follow their example to support people who cannot afford a good iftar meal.”
Eunus Ali, 70, moved to Dhaka some 20 years ago and comes to the Buddhist temple every year. He lives in a slum with his wife, a daughter and a grandchild, but his four married sons live separately and don’t look after their parents.
“We are poor people, so I come here to collect iftar for my family,” he said.
“Some conservative Muslims are uneasy about taking food from non-Muslims, but I don’t see that as a problem because Allah blesses all food.”
The presence of a large number of poor people in the area sparked the idea of offering iftar fast-breaking meals, said Dr. Pranab Kumar Barua, who is the president of the Organization for the Promotion of Buddhist Culture’s advisory council.
He described this as “an expression of our love” for the needy that fosters unity and harmony.
Popular Islamic shrines
In northern Dhaka, Uttara Friends’ Club has been providing iftar meals to hundreds of rickshaw pullers and poor street people every day during the current Ramadan period.
In northwestern Sylhet city, two popular Islamic shrines dedicated to prominent Islamic preachers, Hazarat Shah Jalal and Hazarat Shah, have been offering iftar to some 500 poor Muslims daily during this year’s holy month.
Meanwhile, the marriage of Hindu couple Purnima Karmakar and Bimol Das on May 19 was possible because a Muslim businessman funded most of the expenses from his Zakat religious tax money, said Poly Saha, a local college teacher.
“This is a great example of interfaith harmony in the country,” she said.
Purnima’s father passed away four years ago from cancer and her mother has been working as a housemaid ever since to support the family.
Zakat is an obligatory religious tax and one of the five pillars of Islam. The money collected from Zakat is to be distributed to people living in poverty ahead of the Eid festival marking the end of Ramadan.
This is a time for expression of fraternity and solidarity, noted Bishop Bejoy N. D’Cruze of Sylhet, who is the chairman of Catholic Bishops’ Commission for Christian Unity and Inter-religious Dialogue.
Ramadan evokes good religious sentiments among Muslims, especially fraternal love for each other and for the poor,” he told ucanews.com. “They believe expressing fraternal love and solidarity with others makes them worthy for Allah’s blessings.”
Bishop D’Cruze also pointed out that individual Muslims, as well as Islamic organizations, arrange interfaith iftar programs
And members of other faiths also helped each other during religious festivals and holidays, the prelate added.
Maolana Fariduddin Masoud, from the Bangladesh Jamiatul Ulama (Council of Clerics) told ucanews.com that in Bangladesh it is believed that while religion is personal, festivals are for all.
People were overwhelmingly proud of the nation’s rich heritage of pluralism and harmony, he added.
“Our first identity is we are human beings and then we are adherents of religious faiths,” Masoud said. “It’s really good to see that when people are in need, others lend support. This is what all religions teach and this is how we can forget our differences and we can drive away hatred and violence from the world.”
Bishop D’Cruze believes Bangladesh has in recent years been overcoming religious extremism.
Government efforts and public opposition meant militancy had been largely neutralized, but tensions remained.
“Recent terrorist attacks in New Zealand and Sri Lanka frighten us, but we still hope we can live freely in harmony,” Bishop D’Cruze said.
The Vatican, in a Ramadan message, called for the promotion of religious fraternity to foster peace.