Turkish preacher powers through pandemic by helping others
As Muslims all over the world prepare for Eid al-Fitr, the festival marking the end of Ramadan, many still carry a certain sadness over being unable to pray in mosques during the holy month.
However, a Turkish preacher in Istanbul did not let the restrictions imposed due to the coronavirus pandemic dampen his spirit, finding solace and meaning in charity work throughout Ramadan.
Osman Gökrem, 53, completely supports the government's decision to stop congregational prayers as part of measures to curb the virus' impact in Turkey.
However, he admits it was "shocking" for him to see his Selime Hatun Mosque, located in Beyoğlu district on Istanbul's European side, completely deserted for the Friday prayers of the holy month.
"As always, I was planning to give out candy to the children and Turkish delight to the elders, but the virus changed all that," Gökrem, who has been a preacher for 32 years, told Anadolu Agency.
However, when he saw his community members confined to their homes due to the pandemic, the man of God knew he must reach out in support, particularly to those in need of help to make ends meet.
Realizing that the needy were now more vulnerable than ever, Gökrem rolled up his sleeves and hit the streets with a group of trusted and equally committed friends.
"We have given cheques to dozens of families in different parts of Istanbul to help them buy essentials such as food and clothes," he said.
"Seeing an orphan's smile at a simple and humble gift is the greatest motivation to keep up one's acts of kindness."
'WE ARE ALL THE SAME'
Gökrem said every person with the means should extend a helping hand to the poor in these trying times, as it was a religious and communal duty.
"Despite the coronavirus crisis, this month of fasting felt more fulfilling than ever because of the opportunity to help others. I have never enjoyed helping others as much as I did this time, and god willing, we will continue to do more," he said.
"It is my religious duty to help the less fortunate. Also, as our Prophet Muhammad once said, it does not necessarily have to be financial assistance, as even sharing another person's burden is also a genuine act of kindness that holds meaning."
The otherwise upbeat preacher, though, did share one regret; not being able to organize the customary breakfast gathering on the first day of Eid.
"It pains me to know that we can't enjoy the breakfast this time. It is truly wonderful to see people of different faiths, beliefs, and social classes come together in celebration," said Gökrem.
"We have men and women, Sunnis and Alevis, Muslims and non-Muslims, the rich and the poor, all celebrating together. There are even atheists, drunkards, and drug addicts in the mix."
To a question about how the guests get along, the preacher shared an anecdote that he said was proof of the oneness of humanity.
"A few years ago, I invited dozens of homeless people to the mosque to give them new clothes and had barbers come in to give them haircuts. We also let them use our showers to clean up," he narrated.
"I invited them all to the Eid breakfast and offered the other guests a small gold coin if they could identify any of the homeless people. No one could do it, which just helped prove the point that we are all the same."
HOPE AMID DESPAIR
With a four-day curfew imposed across Turkey, Gökrem said the muted Eid celebrations were all the more reason for people to help others.
"It will be particularly tough not being able to visit our families and our elders. But we should remember that kindness is also infectious and we can do our part to help those in need," he said.
"Also, you helping someone could inspire someone else to do the same."
As Turkey moves towards normalcy, congregational prayers will be partially allowed in the country from May 29, with a full resumption of mass gatherings expected by June 12.
The country has reported 155,686 COVID-19 cases to date, including 117,602 recoveries and 4,308 fatalities, according to official data.