ISTANBUL (BP) -- "This reminds me of a fusion of the Fourth of July in Washington, D.C., and a carnival," I thought as I looked out at the thousands of families and groups of friends spreading picnic blankets on the grass and unpacking carefully prepared packages of dinner. Others possessively claimed a limited supply of picnic tables.
Regardless of whether people actually kept the fast that day, the pressure of being seen in public conformed everyone into one patient crowd -- waiting to eat until the evening call to prayer sounded.
I accompanied two friends to Istanbul's historic Sultanahmet district during iftar, the sunset meal when Muslims across the world break the Ramadan fast. Normally crawling with tourists from every corner of the Western world, this evening Sultanahmet district was welcoming its own -- an almost entirely Muslim crowd.
We moved past the picnickers to the back streets and found our destination -- a rooftop terrace restaurant overlooking the Bosphorus Straight, Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.
A young Turkish couple sat at the table next to us. The servers quickly placed already-prepared Ramadan appetizers in front of them -- cheeses, olives, hummus and other Mediterranean delights. Restaurants across the city spend the afternoon and early evening preparing for thousands of people to eat at the same precise moment. It is an exact art, and the servers moved with skill and precision.
As the sun disappeared, the servers appeared in perfect sequence with tureens of steaming lentil soup, ladling it into bowls just as the call to prayer sounded. It was 8:37 p.m., and the fast was over. As the haunting call to prayer began to fade, the young couple next to us waited a few moments, lifted their glasses and sipped water. Below us, the picnickers began eating their feasts.
The party was on.
We paid our bill and left the terrace to join the festivities. Vendors selling popcorn, cotton candy, roasted chestnuts, watermelon and cantaloupe wandered through the crowd. Two small girls dressed in pink danced in a cloud of soap bubbles coming from a bubble machine a vendor was selling. Cheap, blue florescent, helicopter-like toys were exploding into the sky like fireworks.
"This reminds me of Dollywood," my friend laughed as we meandered through an arts and crafts exhibit. We stopped to watch a glassblower creating a tiny, exquisite horse. Moving on, we saw a small crowd gathered around an ebru (painting) exhibit, where for a small fee one could create art using the classic paper marbling Ottoman art form.
The woman behind the table carefully guided the hand of a young man as he formed a tulip shape with the paint. She lifted the sheet of paper and laid it behind her to dry. "We will be open until 2 a.m.," she told him.
In the midst of the festivities, it was difficult to remember that our entire evening was spent with a people who were celebrating a meaningless spiritual exercise that denies Christ's work of salvation. I recalled my many Muslim friends who have told me that they feel closer to God during Ramadan. It grieves me to remember that they are self-deceived and walking in darkness.
Our evening in Sultanahmet was festive and fun, but it also was sobering. I pray that my Muslim friends will one day participate in an eternal festival that celebrates the Lamb of God.
The end of Ramadan will be celebrated with an official holiday lasting three days (Aug. 8-10). As many Muslims celebrate by visiting family and friends, pray that God will accomplish a brokenness in many hearts to understand that their fast has not reconciled them to God.
Pray for Christian workers to speak boldly of Christ's work of reconciliation by looking for creative ways to express their love for their Muslim friends and neighbors during the final days of Ramadan and the ensuing holiday.
The testimony of many Muslim-background believers often begins with a dream about Jesus. Pray that Muslims who are having spiritual dreams will encounter believers who would confidently respond with a message from God -- the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Pray that Christians around the world, even in Europe and the United States, will show intentional and Christ-like love to Muslim neighbors and acquaintances during this season, and as a result, that God would bring about many spiritual conversations.
Madeline Arthington is a writer for IMB based in Central Asia. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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