By Adela Suliman
LONDON, June 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As dusk falls, shoes come off and hundreds of hungry diners sit cross-legged in a London park to break bread.
It is iftar: the traditional sundown dinner that follows 19 hours of fasting in London, part of an annual ritual observed by Muslims the world over to mark the holy month of Ramadan.
One of the sacred pillars of Islam, Ramadan calls on Muslims to abstain from all food, drink and even sipping water during the month's daylight hours.
So dinner takes on a special significance at the "open iftar" staged each year in a central London park.
Held in Bloomsbury, an elegant London district known for its garden squares and literary past, the "open iftar" is laid on for 30 nights by a small community group - The Ramadan Tent Project, which invites all comers to join them and eat for free.
"I was a bit uncertain as I'm not a Muslim," said retired psychotherapist Anthony Royle, who attended with two friends.
"The more we can understand of each other's particular points of view, I think it's an essential part of us all sharing in a community. It's very easy to put people into little enclaves."
The project began in 2013 when Omar Salha, then a postgraduate student, decided to set up a "home from home" for international students living in the city.
It has far surpassed Salha's first vision.
At least 300 hungry Londoners gathered in the park on Tuesday evening, from suited executives to the homeless, as strangers sat side-by-side on the ground.
Many said the atmosphere challenged perceptions that it was a time of mistrust between communities in Britain, home to some 2.7 million Muslims, according to census data.
But terror attacks, rising anti-immigrant sentiment and disputes over what it means to be British have bred division.
Sajid Javid, Britain's first Muslim interior minister, said this week the threat posed by Islamist militants remained high but that Muslims were not responsible "for the acts of a tiny minority who twist their faith".
Britain's largest Muslim group, The Muslim Council of Britain, has logged more than 100 hate incidents against Muslims since Britons voted in 2016 to leave the European Union, an outcome fuelled in large part by anti-immigrant sentiment.
PICNIC GROWS UP
In its infancy, the dinner drew just a handful of students who sat on newspapers and shared a jumbled picnic on the grass.
Now, up to 400 people gather each night under a large marquee, with lighting and a sound system, served by a slick operation of 90 volunteers.
Its founder said the project was a way to celebrate diversity and offer Londoners an escape from urban life.
"It's very easy to get sucked into the 'us and them' narrative," Salha told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"The 'open iftar' experience is about turning strangers into friends, breaking down barriers ... and doing it through the act of sharing a meal."
Once the sun set, a volunteer performed a live call to prayer as parched men and women happily broke their fast.
Diners ate grilled chicken, rice, stuffed peppers and sticky baklava - all shared with strangers from any and no faiths.
"'Open iftar' in the heart of London provides a means for people to stop, take a moment, come together and connect," Tabetha Bhatti, an organiser at the Ramadan Tent Project, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
It was the first time for faster Wahil Gouraya.
"In a big city like London, it can be easy to be isolated," said the 18-year-old student. "This gives people an opportunity to go out and meet people that they might not usually meet."
It was the third visit for Umayair Ullah, who said the meal mattered more when misconceptions about Islam were so rife.
"Islam has definitely been misrepresented in the media so I think what 'open iftar' is doing is really important," he said.
"It's like reclaiming the narrative ... it makes me really happy."
PR professional Laura Bannister came with her Arabic class, while television anchor Jon Snow praised the spirit of communality in the bustle of a big city.
"I pay tribute to your generosity, which is what after all we celebrate at an iftar, and what we then try to practise after Ramadan," he told the group.
The open dinner idea, which began in London, has spread to other venues, with similar events taking place in three other British cities as well as Toronto and Portland in north America, Istanbul in Turkey and Zambia's second city of Ndola.
(Reporting by Adela Suliman; editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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