ucanews.com reporter, DhakaUpdated: July 29, 2013 05:05 PM GMT
Buddhist monks offer the iftar meal to poor Muslims in Dhaka (photo by Stephan Uttom)
Unfit to work and 66 years old, Sakhina Begum relies on handouts to feed her sick husband and 10-year-old granddaughter.
“For old people like me it’s difficult to find work so all I can do is beg. I don’t earn enough to manage two meals for the three of us,” she said.
Every evening during Ramadan, she has joined hundreds of other poor Muslims in Dhaka to receive iftar, the fast-breaking evening meal, from an unlikely source: a local Buddhist temple.
Begum is one of about 500 people per day who queue up outside Basabo temple in the south of Dhaka since the Islamic holy month started on July 11. Many of them, including eight-year-old Russell, are children. He only eats one meal per day he said, usually at night, and spends the rest of the day begging.
“My father left my mother and me a few years ago. My mother works as a water supplier for shops and hotels,” said Russell. “I don’t have any food during the day; I beg when I’m hungry.”
In Dhaka, home to 15 million people, about 40 percent live in desperately poor conditions in slums.
In a country where less than half a percent of people are Buddhist and the majority Muslim, the capacity of Buddhist institutions to help the poor is limited.
But Basabo has been fortunate enough to receive financial backing from Singaporean businessman Victor Lee to fund iftar donations over Ramadan, said Dr Pranab Barua, secretary of the Society for the Promotion of Buddhist Culture in Bangladesh, which oversees the temple.
“He donated money to set up a welfare fund which we are using to offer iftar to poor Muslims,” he said.
Buddhists have generally enjoyed good relations with Muslims in the area around the temple, where the people practice a moderate form of Islam.
Countrywide relations have deteriorated sharply, however. When a photo of a burned Qu’ran allegedly posted by a young Buddhist appeared on Facebook last year, Muslim mobs went on a rampage and burned down 19 Buddhist temples and more than 100 homes in the southeast of the country.
Anger still simmers in some areas of the country but around Basabo relations could not be better.
The temple will also offer new clothes and further food donations on the eve of the upcoming Eid-ul-Fitr festival in the second week of August, all courtesy of Lee’s generosity, said Dr Barua.
“Mr. Lee often comes to Bangladesh and has been sympathetic about poor people here,” he said.