POLITICS

Harper invites Muslim families to 24 Sussex to break the Ramadan fast

06/23/2015 07:09 EDT | Updated 06/23/2016 05:59 EDT
OTTAWA - Muslim families gathered at 24 Sussex Drive to break the Ramadan fast Monday night, the first time it's believed such an event has been held at the prime minister's official residence.

During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims fast daily between dawn and sunset. The break-the-fast dinner, called the iftar, is traditionally a festive and spiritual event.

U.S. President Barack Obama hosts an iftar annually at the White House, as has the British prime minister at his official residence.

But Canada's prime minister has never had one — until now.

"This house belongs ultimately to all Canadians," Prime Minister Stephen Harper told a crowd of 40 people who gathered to pray and break the fast late Monday night.

"And I hope all Canadians, especially our Muslim friends and neighbours, share in these blessings tonight."

But in addition to the historical importance of the event, it was also highly symbolic, as Harper himself noted.

"(It) has been said: host who shares iftar brings goodness upon himself," he said, according to the text of his prepared remarks.

The Conservative government's relationship with the Muslim community has been tense, with major flare-ups over issues such as a new bill banning face veils during citizenship ceremonies.

Harper has also been criticized for focusing more on radical elements within Islam than on reaching out to mainstream Muslims in the aftermath of terrorist attacks linked to radicalization.

But the mood on Monday night was described as warm.

The call to prayer — held in the Harper's living room — was led by a young Muslim doctor from Toronto.

Kids at the event played soccer on the lawn while those fasting began the meal with a traditional serving of dates before moving onto a Middle Eastern style buffet.

On Tuesday, the Prime Minister's Office declined to release a full list of attendees, saying the guests had not been made aware their names could be made public.

"The prime minister was pleased to bring together community members to celebrate Ramadan and honour the contributions Muslim Canadians make to our country," said spokesman Stephen Lecce.

Among the guests were three Conservative candidates for the upcoming election — Abdul Abdi, who is running in an Ottawa riding, Karim Jivraj, who is vying for a seat in Toronto, and Qais Hamidi, who is running in Quebec.

The fact that the gathering was held on the eve of the election wasn't lost on some in attendance.

Samir Dossal, the president of the Canada Pakistan Business Council, said he knows some politics were at play but he was still honoured to attend and left with a positive feeling.

"This is the way our system works and you can't help it," Dossal said.

"But he took the opportunity. He could have not done it."

The intent was an intimate, family-focused event, not a political one, said Jason Kenney, the minister for multiculturalism, who said he had been pushing for 24 Sussex Drive to host an iftar for a few years but the schedule never worked.

"It's the first time it has ever happened under any prime minister and I think it's a wonderful initiative."

Among those at the dinner was Conservative Sen. Salma Ataullahjan, a Sunni Muslim who helped organize the event.

She said the crowd was deliberately kept low key, representing different ethnicities and levels of observance.

"We were there as Canadians, celebrating Ramadan in the prime minister's house," she said. "What could be better than that?"