By Fiona Hurrell, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – As Catholics in Brazil prepare for World Youth Day on July 23rd-28th, the country’s Islamic community is also anticipating an important religious event of its own in July – Ramadan. As part of a celebration of the various religions of Brazil, The Rio Times looks at the Islamic faith and its growing presence in Rio.
According to a census conducted by the IBGE (Brazilian institute for geography and statistics), the number of Muslims living in Brazil has risen by 29.1 percent between the years 2000 and 2010. The survey also indicated that the largest number of Muslims can be found in São Paulo, followed by Paraná, Rio Grande do Sul, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais.
It is commonly believed that the Islamic faith was first brought to Brazil by African slaves and it is claimed that more Muslim slaves were sent to Brazil than anywhere else in the Americas. Muslim immigrants later came from the Middle East and South East Asia, mainly from Syria and Lebanon according to reports.
Arabic influences have long been woven into Brazil’s cultural fabric and can be found particularly in cuisine, textiles and even art. In terms of food, Brazil’s second largest fast food chain is Arabic style restaurant Habib’s and, in Rio, traditional Arabic dishes such as hummus, kafta and felafel can be found everywhere. Another place to taste Arabic food is Amir restaurant, situated on the seafront of Copacabana.
Arabic style architecture can be found in the Mosques and some of the most beautiful in Brazil are located in Curitiba and Foz do Iguaçu, while in Rio, the city’s sole mosque, the Mesquita da Luz (mosque of light), is currently under renovation and set to be completed in August.
Still a working place of worship however, the Mesquita da Luz in Tijuca serves approximately 200 Muslims and is part of the e Beneficent Muslim Society (SBMRJ) in Rio which serves as a central hub and community center for Muslims living in or visiting the city.
31 year-old Fernando Celino frequently worships there, having converted to the Islamic faith from Catholicism in 2006.
He reveals, “It happened during my adolescence. I continued to believe in God but not religion. I first came across Islam through a Muslim friend and while at university I began to study the religion myself in greater detail. It explained things to me better than any other religion had.”
Sami Isbelle is a spokesperson for SBMRJ in Rio de Janeiro. During an interview with a Pakistani news network he revealed, “The number of Muslims in Brazil continues to grow and most are Brazilians who are converting. [...] They are drawn to Islam for different reasons, such as marrying a Muslim, getting to know the religion through friends or the internet or while searching for answers to spiritual questions.”
Expatriate Saira Ansari, who lived in Rio for a time, visited the mosque during Ramadan. She described, “It was probably the most surreal experience of my life to be going to a mosque in Rio de Janeiro of all the cities in the world.”
While Brazil’s Catholics look to July this year as a special religious occasion in the theme of WYD, the Islamic community will observe Ramadan starting on July 9th for thirty days. During this time Muslims are encouraged to fast from dawn until sunset while offering special prayers and reciting the Qua’ran.
Fernando Celino explains, “The fasting can be a little difficult but once the first week is out of the way it becomes much easier. At night we all meet at the mosque and eat together and there is a wonderful sense of community you get from this.”