(This article was first published on 26 May 2018 in the Weekend Argus, a weekly regional newspaper distributed in the Western Cape, South Africa.)

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

Before starting their iftar dinner, Muslims and Christians seated around the same table at the Ozkaya family home in Ottery this week held hands to pray.

Iftar is a special time for Muslims as it marks the end of the day of fasting during Ramadaan, which started on May 17.

The Ozkaya family, originally from Turkey and Uzbekistan, decided to invite Christians to share the iftar meal with them as part of interfaith efforts.

Erdal Ozkaya, principal of the Star College in Sybrand Park, is a volunteer with the Turquoise Harmony Institute which is organising interfaith iftar dinners in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg.

Erdal Ozkaya (right) with his wife Sereyya and their son Okan invited non-Muslims to have iftar at their home. Picture Yazeed Kamaldien

Ozkaya said in Turkey they usually invite family members to their homes for iftar. In Cape Town, he decided to invite Christians to join him for iftar “so that we may know each other”.

“Iftar is a way to come together with other people. It is very important for people to share their cultures. When you sit together and share something you get to know each other,” said Ozkaya.

“We live in the same society. We have a lot in common but we don’t know each other.”

He said it was also important that his three children were exposed to other cultures.

“The world is global and we are all traveling. If my children know other cultures they will know other people. They won’t make decisions on misconceptions,” said Ozkaya.

His wife Sureyya, originally from Uzbekistan where they met, prepared a traditional Uzbeki breyani and some Turkish dishes for iftar. She also made mushroom soup and fried samosas – more common in Cape Town than her homeland.

For Sureyya, Ramadaan emphasised sharing.

“But it’s not only Ramadaan that is about sharing. We must share throughout our lives,” she added.

Sereyya Ozkaya (right) with all the food she prepared for iftar. Her guest Rabia Inal joined her for this photo. Picture Yazeed Kamaldien

Their guests for the evening, facilitated via the Turquoise public call inviting strangers to Turkish family homes for iftar, were Mary Frost from Rondebosch East and Frances Schwarting from Newlands.

Both women had joined Muslim families for iftar before. Schwarting said it was an “open-hearted experience”.

“I worked at a hospital in Durban. I went to all the different families when somebody died or had a baby and was exposed to a broader outlook. This made me more tolerant. And that is essential for every human being,” said Schwarting.

“We need to understand each other so that we don’t fear each other. More people should engage in interfaith experiences. You will someone else only as human.”

Muslims and Christians join hands in prayer before enjoying iftar as part of an interfaith project in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Picture Yazeed Kamaldien

Frost meanwhile is a founder member of the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative launched in 2000. She is an advocate for interfaith gatherings and is involved in organising public events of this nature.

“We have so many faiths in Cape Town and we have annual prayers at the V&A Waterfront amphitheatre. We get young people together to say prayers for the city. We have an intercultural school programme at the moment,” said Frost.

She added: “When I started interfaith work I felt there are so many stereotypes about other people and I wanted to break down those barriers and bring people together. I want to dispel fears.

“We organise dialogues in neutral spaces where people don’t feel threatened. They can ask any question and learn about each other.”

Interestingly, conversation at the Ozkaya iftar hardly focused on the differences between religions. It veered towards getting to know the other person, with questions ranging from work and family life.

Frost reflected that it was a “very relaxed space to learn about each other”.

“Some people are fearful of interfaith gatherings like this because they are insecure. People are scared of being converted. But it’s not about that. It’s about accepting people for who they are,” said Frost.

“I feel secure in my faith and I don’t feel that they want to convert me. People say why do you want to go and sit with Muslims if you have your own faith. But this is about humanity. It’s about getting to know each other.”

Aydin Inal, the Western Cape director for Turquoise, said Cape Town requests to join families for iftar was slowly picking up. Turquoise has meanwhile had to organise 75 requests for iftar dinners during Ramadaan in Johannesburg.

“Some people are not sure if they must fast on the day of the iftar or if they need to become Muslim to come to the iftar. But they don’t need to fast or be Muslim to have iftar with a Turkish family,” he said of the requests.

“People can contact us on Facebook if they want to get involved. The guests don’t have to bring food. The volunteer families take care of that.”

Inal added: “We had Jewish guests at one iftar and I learned things that I didn’t know. Our vision is a peaceful society and for that we have to ensure that people know one another.

“When we achieve that, we will realise the things we fight over are not the major issues. We will see that what connects us is more than what divides us. That is why we want people to get together and discover each other’s humanity.”

Turquoise plans to host a mass iftar on June 5 in Cape Town.