WILLMAR -- Women wearing colorful hijabs and men wearing long, loose overshirts called khamiis gathered Friday morning at the Willmar Civic Center for a traditional prayer service that's part of Eid al-fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan.
There was a festive mood in the air as local Muslims greeted each other in Arabic with the words "peace be upon you." Men shook hands, women hugged each other and kids skipped around the arena that was bare except for prayer carpets on the floor.
For 30 days, Muslims have been fasting from sunrise to sunset during the holy month of Ramadan and have been immersing themselves in the holy book, the Quran. Some have spent hours in continuous evening prayers at a mosque located in a leased building in downtown Willmar.
The fast ended Thursday night and on Friday Muslims gathered for prayer and a message of encouragement from the imam during the festival of fast-breaking.
With men and boys at the front of the makeshift worship area and women, girls and babies in the back, the prayers in Arabic were alternated with silence as participants bowed and kneeled.
As soon as the last Eid prayer was uttered, there was a rush to the doors as families went home to entertain guests with traditional foods, including special cookies served with a sweet confection called halwa.
"It is one of the best holidays in Islam," said Abdi Duh, a community leader, before joining fellow worshippers in the Civic Center. "We are celebrating our joy and happiness."
The 30-day period of fasting and focusing on religious teachings allows Muslims time to reflect on wrongs or regrets from the previous 11 months in a physical and spiritual cleansing, said Abdi Duh.
Eid al-fitr celebrates forgiveness for each other and sends the message to "live in peace," he said.
"It's an excitement. We shake hands. We forgive each other," said Mohamed Sayid with a warm, broad smile. The large community gathering is a time to express "appreciation for each other."
Sayid has lived in Willmar for five years and is eager to expand community understanding of Islam and the culture and traditions of Muslims. He wants longtime Willmar residents to know what Muslims are doing when they gather for prayer and celebrations.
A lack of understanding or fear of Islam that has manifested itself in threats by a conservative Florida pastor to burn Qurans troubles local Muslims.
Through a translator, Imam Liban Khalif said the issue is "regretful" and has "caused confusion" for Muslims here.
"It is a concern to us," he said, adding that he hopes people understand that Islam is a religion that "loves peace" and has existed peacefully in nations for centuries.
For the last couple years, area Muslims, who are primarily from Somalia, had marked Eid al-fitr at the Willmar Holiday Inn. Because the community has grown -- with estimates ranging from 2,000 to 4,000 living in Willmar, a larger space was needed to hold the traditional prayer service this year.
Efforts are under way to either purchase land or an existing building in Willmar for a mosque that would be large enough for the growing population, especially for large celebrations that bring out nearly everyone.
Muslim children were excused from school and people left their job for the day to celebrate Eid al-fitr.
"We're just very proud of the city of Willmar and Mayor Les Heitke," said Duh. He said he hopes people understand that their new neighbors are "hard-working" and "very brave" to be settling in a new community that has a different language and customs. Muslims are eager to become part of the larger community, he said.
In a brief translated address prior to the prayer service, Heitke said he meets weekly with Somali leaders to discuss concerns about education, safety, jobs and their future in Willmar.
"I listen to your elders to understand your questions and concerns about the city of Willmar," said Heitke, who said he wants all residents to live together in a community that "welcomes everyone."
Heitke said news that local Muslims intend to own a mosque and that they have purchased land in a city cemetery shows they are "committed to being part of this community."