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Muslims Pack Mosques to Celebrate End of Ramadan

Far from the din and controversy roiling interfaith relations in the West, Muslims worldwide thronged mosques, cafes and parks Friday in a solemn and joyful end to the fasting month of Ramadan.

Authorities increased security in some countries due to fears that violence could intrude on the celebrations, but for most Muslims it was a day of peace, family - and most important food.

Friends and relatives feasted on spicy lamb, kebabs and saffron rice, while smokers happily puffed on cigarettes in broad daylight as the three-day Eid al-Fitr festival got under way across the Muslim world.

During Ramadan, the faithful are supposed to abstain from food, drink, smoking and sex in a dawn-to-dusk period of self-sacrifice to commemorate the revelation of the Quran (Koran) to the Prophet Muhammad.

"It's nice to be eating, drinking and smoking during the daytime," said Jordanian banker Mutaz Kurdi, 37, as he walked his two children in an Amman park. "Fasting was difficult this year because of the summer heat."

Business was brisk for ice cream vendors in Baghdad, where children decked out in holiday finery rode Ferris wheels at amusement parks and raced horse-drawn carts on traffic-free streets. Some boys battled each other with plastic guns, ignoring a ban on toy weapons imposed so children would not be mistaken for militants.

Still, soldiers guarded playgrounds and public parks, and additional military and police checkpoints were erected across the Iraqi capital - a reminder the country still faces near-daily bombings and shootings despite a dramatic drop in attacks.

Ali Issa, a 41-year-old father of four from the Shiite slum of Sadr City, said Iraqis have little to look forward to this holiday season, with prices on the rise and continuing political bickering.

"The security situation is deteriorating and so is the economy," Issa said. "This year, I only bought new dresses for my two girls while I asked the two boys to use their old clothes because I cannot afford new clothes for everybody."

In Yemen, authorities warned people to pray inside mosques and deployed heavy security after posters signed by al Qaeda threatened attacks. No outdoor prayers were held in two southern provinces after officials urged people to avoid large gatherings.

War-weary Afghans marked the holiday with prayers for peace in mosques as well as family gatherings in homes. President Hamid Karzai urged the Taliban to lay down their arms and join peace talks - a theme often repeated in presidential speeches but so far unheeded by significant numbers of Taliban.

The normally festive atmosphere for Eid in Afghanistan was tempered not only by the war but by bitterness over a threat by a small Florida church to burn copies of the Islamic holy book Quran on Saturday, the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. At least 11 people were injured in scattered protests across the country, police said.

"Muslims are not going to be humiliated," cleric Mohammad Ayaz Niazi said during a sermon in Kabul. "From this mosque, I'm asking the world to prevent this crime, which could destroy global peace."

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The controversy also dominated Eid sermons in the Palestinian territories. Ismail Haniyeh, leader of the Islamic militant Hamas, told tens of thousands of Muslim faithful at a stadium in the Gaza Strip that they had "to respond to this criminal, this liar, this crazy priest who reflects a crazy Western attitude toward Islam and the Muslim nation."

The issue was also on the minds of Muslims in the United States, many of whom urged tolerance.

At a mosque in Anaheim, Calif., Imam Mohammed Ibn Faqih reminded worshippers that the holiness of the Quran could not be sullied by burning it.

"Burning the Quran by itself, you are burning papers. You are not burning the words of Allah. It is in our hearts," said worshipper Susan Nachawati, an American born in Syria.

In suburban Chicago, where thousands of Muslims gathered for prayers at a stadium in Bridgeview, Ill., Scott Alexander wore a pin on his jacket that read: "I (Heart) Muslims and Their Mosques."

"A rash of Islamophobia is spreading through the country, making it important to stand with Muslim Americans," said the 48-year-old Catholic, who was among interfaith leaders who attended the service to show their support for Muslims.

Despite the controversy, most Muslims worldwide held to traditions of celebration and family.

Thousands of children, most dressed in new holiday clothing, thronged the streets of Gaza City, which were decorated with banners wishing a "Happy Eid." Hamas activists distributed candy and toys to children who lost parents during Israel's bruising war in Gaza nearly two years ago and in other conflicts.

In the West Bank, men with children in tow paid respects to female relatives - mothers, sisters and aunts - bearing gifts of sweets as well as cash. The women greeted their visitors with offerings of baklava and other pastries.

In Egypt, hundreds of thousands flocked to the Giza Zoo while others rode traditional sailboats known as feluccas on the Nile River. Millions prayed at some 3,000 outdoor sites as clerics gave sermons about the need to end disputes among family members and the virtue of forgiveness.

Many were especially happy to see Ramadan end this year because it began in August for the first time in 33 years, coinciding with the hottest time of the year, with temperatures pushing 130 degrees in many countries in the Middle East.

Jordanian tour operators said occupancy in Aqaba, Jordan's sole sea outlet, was 100 percent as tourists rushed to catch up with the last days of summer.

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