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Members of the Iqaluit Masjid gather for afternoon prayer in Iqaluit, Nun., on April 1. Mosques, churches and other religious gathering places were subject to strict pandemic restrictions throughout the country over the past two years.Dustin Patar/The Canadian Press

Jalil Marhnouj was brimming with excitement on Saturday afternoon on the first day of Ramadan. For the first time in two years, he was going to a community event to break fast.

“I feel like someone who has been out of touch for so long, I don’t know how to dress, what we’re going to do,” said Mr. Marhnouj, president of the AMA Community Centre, a mosque in Ottawa.

He said he was already glowing after going to a prayer at his mosque the night before Ramadan, where he spent half an hour just talking to members of the community that he hadn’t seen in two years.

Community is an integral part of the month-long celebration of Ramadan, where Muslims forgo food and water from sunrise to sunset. The practice is one of the five pillars of Islam, and is meant to remind Muslims that sustenance is something provided for by God, and to promote empathy with impoverished people.

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For the first time since the pandemic started in March, 2020, worshippers will be able to partake in large communal dinners at mosques and homes, which are a staple of the fasting month. The dinners, called iftars, can serve thousands of people at a time for some of the largest events, and they feature foods from different Islamic cultures.

Spending time together helps ease the hardship of going without food for long periods of time, Mr. Marhnouj says. It also takes the pressure off families when they don’t have to cook every night as they labour through a fast. And importantly, it helps the community stick together during a time when everyone is thinking deeply about their faith.

Mosques, churches and other religious gathering places were subject to strict pandemic restrictions throughout the country over the past two years, which limited people’s abilities to celebrate religious holidays. During that time, mosques elected to livestream prayers and Quran reading sessions during Ramadan, so worshippers could have some semblance of normalcy.

“When you’re alone, you don’t feel the sense of connection and belonging,” said Mr. Marhnouj. “But when you’re together there’s a restorative effect for the community, and you don’t feel the time going by, and the hunger and tiredness.”

Before the pandemic, he said more than 1,000 people would come to the mosque for prayers during the month. When the pandemic hit, the number of people dwindled to five or 10. He’s looking forward to the mosque being full of people once again.

“You felt empty when going to the mosque,” he said of the previous two years. He said the ordeal has reminded Muslims about what a privilege it is to be able to safely gather at their place of worship.

He added the mosque is still taking extra precautions to be on the safe side, such as recommending that people continue wearing masks during prayers.

Aasima Asrar, a Grade 4 teacher at an Islamic school in Calgary, said she’s excited to be able to celebrate the month with her class again.

In previous years, her students and their families would all get together to break fast together once during Ramadan. That festive sprit was lost over the past two years, as activities such as making goody bags with the children and preparing food baskets for families in need were suspended.

“We weren’t doing any of the stuff that brings the vibe of Ramadan in school, and it was just very plain,” said Ms. Asrar.

With most restrictions now lifted in Alberta, Ms. Asrar is ecstatic to hold an iftar with her class this week. “It’s the best thing to come back this year,” she said.

Sallah Hamdani, a spokesperson for the Islamic Society of St. Catharines in Southern Ontario, said he did his best to appreciate some aspects of celebrating Ramadan during the pandemic, such as slowing down and spending more quality time with just his family.

But he said he’s excited to return to larger community events. Those events encourage the community to be generous, Mr. Hamdani said, which is an important part of Ramadan.

“Ramadan is the month of generosity and kindness, and being open and helpful for people,” said Mr. Hamdani, who said little gestures such as serving food for your parents or helping the elderly and others if they’re struggling with the fast are important parts of Ramadan.

“That aspect of generosity was very limited during the pandemic.”

He said communal dinners also make people aware of how much they’re eating. There can be a strong desire to gorge on as much food as possible after fasting for hours, but he said he’s cognizant of what he’s putting on his plate when dining at the mosque or at someone’s home.

“You know that meal is being shared, and that you have to leave food for the person behind you because there are more people that need to come and eat,” said Mr. Hamdani.

“You’re conscious of yourself, of God, and you’re aware of people around you that are going through the similar struggle of abstaining from food or drink.”

The first day of Ramadan took place on Saturday, and Muslims will continue to fast every day until the beginning of May. After that, communities will gather for Eid-al-Fitr, an Islamic holiday that celebrates the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

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