Mourning and worry cast pall over Ramadan this year for many Muslim Canadians

Mourning and worry cast pall over Ramadan this year for many Muslim Canadians
Palestinians pray in front of a mosque destroyed by the Israeli airstrikes in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Friday, March 8, 2024, ahead of the holy Islamic month of Ramadan.

Ramadan is usually a joyful time at Reem Sultan’s home, but not this year.

The London, Ont., resident, one of hundreds of thousands of Canadians preparing to mark the most sacred month in the Muslim calendar when it officially begins at sundown on Sunday, said the humanitarian crisis and violence unfolding in Gaza over the past five months weighs heavily on those marking the occasion an ocean away.

Sultan said this year’s month of dawn-to-dusk fasting, prayer and family gatherings will look very different at her home as she and her relatives grapple with the ongoing fallout of the Israel-Hamas war.

“This is not festive and we can’t be happy. We can’t be joyful when we are watching our relatives and brothers and sisters in faith being murdered day in and day out,” she said in an interview Sunday.

Sultan said she and her community are reckoning with grief, anger and profound sadness as the death toll in Gaza continues to climb. She has lost loved ones to the violence and said she remains consumed by fear for the safety of her relatives and friends.

The decorations and bright lights Sultan normally puts up around her home will stay down this year, she said, and her family won’t be breaking their fast with the typical desserts and treats she usually makes.

“We’ve had a discussion as a family that this year we won’t have the normal celebration, or celebratory items or foods that we normally have,” she said.

As Sultan and her family worry about Gazans without access to food, she is earmarking the money saved on celebratory foods and decorations for iftar, the traditional meal shared after fasting, to send to relatives and friends in Gaza.

For Sultan and her family, the focus of prayers this month will be for an end to the violence.

“I can tell you that it will be the number one prayer among every Muslim around the world, it will be to see these atrocities end and a ceasefire to happen,” she said. “Not only in Gaza, but in any place in the world that is seeing crimes against humanity and oppression.”

The more muted festivities planned for the Sultan household were also unfolding around the world in the lead-up to Ramadan, which sees those observing abstain from food and water from sunrise to sunset.

On the eve of the holy month, Jerusalem’s Old City bore few of its usual festive hallmarks.

Nearly half of the grotto-shaped gift shops were sealed behind metal shutters. The narrow streets that run toward Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site, were eerily empty. Absent were the fairy lights and shining lanterns that would usually dangle above hurried worshippers.

With the Hamas-run health ministry pegging the Palestinian death toll from the war at more than 30,000 as it enters its six month, and with hundreds of thousands more going hungry, Muslims say there’s little room for expressions of joy.

“As it pains us that the month of Ramadan falls this year, in light of the attacks our brothers in Palestine are suffering from, we stress the need for the international community to assume its responsibilities, to stop these brutal crimes, and provide safe humanitarian and relief corridors,” Saudi Arabia’s King Salman said in a statement issued shortly after Ramadan was declared underway in that country.

Gaza is not the only hotbed of violence weighing on Muslims. War also continues to rage across Sudan despite efforts to try and reach a Ramadan cease-fire. Similar efforts to broker a pause in hostilities in Gaza appeared to stall over the weekend.

But not all Ramadan festivities have been put on hold. As Sultan and her family ache with worry for those in Gaza, she said they have been moved to see how Muslims there mark the holy month despite the violence surrounding them.

“From what I’m hearing from my family in Gaza, this month does bring them renewed hope and faith,” Sultan said.

“In the most desperate of times, they are decorating their streets, they are cleaning up the streets in the north where I’m from, and they are forcing themselves to feel that it’s Ramadan… We’re learning from them, their resilience and steadfastness, to say we’re here and we’re here to stay and nothing will change that, it’s amazing.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wished Muslim Canadians a blessed and peaceful Ramadan in a statement Sunday, saying the holy month comes at a “particularly challenging time” amid the ongoing humanitarian crisis.

“Canada reaffirms our call for a sustainable ceasefire in Gaza and the safe, unimpeded access to humanitarian relief for civilians,” Trudeau said in the statement.

Sultan said statements like these equate to “lip-service,” and government must do more to push for an end to the violence and retrieve Canadians who are still stuck in Gaza.

By Lyndsay Armstrong

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 10, 2024.

— With files from The Associated Press.

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