Muslims in Dili, the capital of predominantly Catholic East Timor, have welcomed Ramadan with great joy.
Julio Muslim Antonio da Costa, the imam of Dili's largest mosque An Nur, said as the holy month approached, the mosque council set up a committee to organize Ramadan-related activities, such as preparing meals for iftar (the breaking of the fast at sunset) and collecting alms.
"We had up to 400 people for iftar in on first and second day of Ramadan and we prepare the food everyday throughout the month," da Costa said.
Some congregation members stay in the mosque for the rest of the evening to perform the Taraweeh prayer and listen to sermons delivered by clerics from neighboring countries.
The clerics also "deliver sermons in other parts of the country, where there are smaller Muslim communities," da Costa said in an interview at the mosque.
Every Sunday afternoon, Nurul Habibah, 28, organizes Qur'an recital with her fellow members of Muslim women.
"We have sermons and recital after the Asr prayer, and we involve children from the adjoining orphanage," said Nurul who hails from Lombok island in Indonesia and whose husband, Fawwaz Akmal Fragoso, is a Muslim convert.
Muslims make up about 0.3 percent out of East Timor's 1.2 million population, most of them concentrated in Dili. Outgoing Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, whose Fretilin party lost in parliamentary elections on May 12, is a Muslim of Yemeni descent.
"There is no problem with religion in my country. The problem is only when you mix religion with politics. But it's a problem at the high level. There is no problem at the people level," Alkatiri said in an interview at a hotel near the Fretilin party headquarters.
Despite its Catholic-majority population and the church having great influence, East Timor is secular and Muslims live in peace and harmony with the rest of the society. Both Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha are public holidays in the country.
"Every Eid-Al-Fitr, the President comes to An Nur after Eid prayer to celebrate the day with the Muslim community. It is a symbol of religious tolerance in East Timor," da Costa said.
"What makes the Muslim community even more thriving here is the presence of Indonesian Muslims from Java island and Makassar in South Sulawesi," President of Center of East Timor Islamic Community, Arif Abdullah Sagran, said.
The offices of the president and the prime minister, as well as other government offices, send livestock for sacrifice to the mosque for the Eid Al-Adha festivities, Sagran said.
"But there were times when the leaders' offices sent the animals on Eid Al-Fitr instead of Eid Al-Adha," he chuckled.
Finding halal food is still a problem in the country and there used to be a misperception that food was halal as long as it was cleanly cooked, Sagran said.
"The lingering misperception now is that food is halal as long as it doesn't contain pork. We don't have yet a special body to regulate about halal food. But for the time being, we can get halal food and meat from Indonesian traders here," da Costa said.
An Nur, which is located in Dili's Campo Alor neighborhood, was built in 1950s during the Portuguese colonization of East Timor. It was developed further during Indonesia's occupation and officiated in March 1981 by then-Indonesian military commander in East Timor, Brig. Gen. Dading Kalbuadi.
"After our independence in 2002, the government built two towers in the mosque. Now the mosque can accommodate up to 3,000 people," da Costa said.
[The story has been expanded from its original version in Arab News.]