CAIRO – The number of Muslim reverts in the Central American republic of Panama has been growing rapidly over the past years, laying the basis of their community in the country’s first native mosque.
“This is the first time we have a place for Panamanians,” Bianca Chanis, a Panamanian Muslim revert told Religion Dispatches magazine on Wednesday, January 22, while describing the nation's first worshipping house for Muslims.
“And everyone’s welcome.”
For years, a growing number of Muslim reverts in the Central American republic has faced challenges towards establishing their first mosque.
Their dream came true last November after the community opened Al Haqq mosque, nine years after the first call was made in 2005 by Josefina Bell-Munajj and Khadijah Jackson.
The mosque, though not the first Muslim worshipping house, was praised as catering to the native Panamanians reverting to Islam.
Moreover, the mosque would serve as a haven for people interested in getting more information about Islam or spearheading interfaith initiatives in the community.
The mosque was not the only challenge facing the growing Muslim community in Panama.
Muslim parents have been struggling to offer Islamic education to their children.
“We try to teach him Islam, but school confuses him," said Anais Gobea, a Panamanian mother who reverted to Islam four months ago, about her son who attends a public school and get confused with the Catholic education.
Campaigning for mosque was not the only effort spearheaded by Bell-Munajj and Khadijah Jackson.
In 2011, they started religious classes for a small group of women in a room they borrowed from a local Muslim dentist. They started with ten people in 2011 and increased to thirty by the next year.
"We started feeling the urgency to get a new space because we were bursting out the room,” Bell-Munajj, Al haqq co-founder, said.
Islam reached Panama in the mid-16th century through the African Muslim slaves who came to work in mines at that time.
Muslims from Lebanon, Palestine, India, Pakistan, and West Indian countries started to influx to Panama in the twentieth century.
The diverse Muslim community in Panama has brought different practices of Islam to the Central American country.
The establishment of Al Haqq mosque by two native women has drew criticism from some members of the Panamanian Muslim community.
"Islamic culture says that when men are around, women should support them," said Abdul Kabir Malik, one of the first Panamanian Islamic leaders in the country who reverted to Islam in the 1970s.
A different opinion was shared by Walid Handauz, an Arab leader in the Centro Islamico Cultural mosque, who asserted that Islam has united different cultures in Panama.
“We try to gather everyone in one basic road,” Handauz claimed.
The Number of Panamanians joining Islam is rapidly growing, according to Ahmad Bhattay, a leader at Panama City’s Jama Mosque.
The diverse Muslim community in Panama comprises Muslims from different origins and cultures.
The thriving community started recently to draw native followers besides the Muslim immigrants who are mainly from Lebanon, Palestine, Indian and Pakistan.
Bhattay claims that more than 500 Muslims attend the Friday prayer at Jama Mosque, besides two or three new converts attending the mosque every week.
He refuted allegations about discrimination inside the Muslim community in Panama.
“Maybe ten, fifteen, twenty years ago, there was,” Bhattay said, adding that people are open to attend events at whichever mosque they prefer.
According to the latest tallies released in 2009, Muslims make less than 1% of Panama's population with 24,000 Muslims who are concentrated in Panama City and Colón.
Most Muslims in Panama live in the major cities of Panama City and Colón, with smaller numbers in other provincial cities.
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