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Community gathers for interfaith iftar dinner to promote connection while fasting

The Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, one of Orange County's polling locations, is pictured on Sept. 4.

With the celebration of Easter on Sunday and Ramadan coming to a close next week, hundreds of students have found themselves celebrating their religious traditions and strengthening spiritual ties. While each of them chooses to follow their faith on a personal level, some community members came together in recognition of their unique — yet similar — holidays. 

Last week, more than 50 guests gathered for an interfaith iftar at the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church located on Rosemary Street. The event aimed to build connections between people of different faiths and to educate attendees about fasting in different religions. Muslim guests broke their fast together and prayed as other community members participated in an interfaith prayer. 

This year, Ramadan overlaps with Lent. Parish Pastor Will Rose of the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church said there are similarities between the two religious and spiritual observances, both ending in feast days — Ramadan with Eid al-Fitr and Lent with Easter Sunday. Despite occurring on separate calendars and depending on the moon cycle, the dates of the holidays overlap this year, occurring earlier than in the past.

The iftar was hosted by multiple community organizations, including the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP, the Marian Cheek Jackson Center, the Town of Chapel Hill as well as UNC student-run nonprofit Middle East Refugee Aid.

Lee Moavenzadeh, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP’s religious affairs committee co-chairperson, said the event was first held last year. She described it as one of the most diverse gatherings she has experienced in the community and said the organizations involved hope to continue the tradition in the upcoming years. 

The event was created to foster a space for people to embrace the Muslim community, Moavenzadeh said, and let them know they are welcome in Chapel Hill.

“We thought an iftar is a beautiful way to do that, to show, ‘We see you and we’re happy you’re a part of our community,'” she said.

Rose said the congregation decided to host the iftar after their Campus Pastor Mark Coulter heard the event needed a location through a campus interfaith group and ministry.

“It's more important than ever to see that we can work together, we can join hand in hand, we can understand each other and communicate with each other,” Rose said.

Lent is a time for intentional prayer, fasting and acts of charity in preparation for Easter, Rose said. At the iftar, Chapel Hill Town council member Paris Miller-Foushee shared similar words in a speech.

“For many, Ramadan may appear to be about abstaining from food and drink,” she said. “But it is a time of reflection, thankfulness and empathy.”

UNC senior Madison Pittman said she was invited to attend the iftar by her friend Tala Jazairi. Pittman said she enjoyed meeting the families at the celebration and it was heartwarming to see the community come together to show support. 

Pittman, a practicing Christian, said she has been religious her entire life, and grew up in a Baptist community before coming to UNC. In the past year, Pittman said she learned more about Ramadan through her friendship with Jazairi, who is a practicing Muslim. She said she appreciates being able to support her Muslim friends, and loves them all the same, despite their different beliefs.  

Jazairi co-founded MERA with fellow senior Bilal Azzam. She said that by being Muslim themselves and partaking in Middle Eastern refugee relief efforts, they understand the importance of increased Islamic knowledge through the community.

“I think that's the greater goal with events like these, where we talk to the community and connect with the community and make them more aware of what Ramadan is,” Jazairi said.

Both Azzam and Jazairi have fasted on campus, an experience which they said has been improved by UNC Muslim Student Association, as well as the involvement of organizations like the Residence Hall Association, Carolina Union Activities Board and the supportive faculty.

Azzam said interfaith events are helpful for bringing the community together, and MERA was very excited to sponsor the iftar. 

“You see Islamic leaders and Christian leaders, the population just getting along and having open and safe-space discussions like this,” he said. “It’s always really, really admirable to see.”

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