In a rundown Sao Paulo street, squeezed between a graffiti-covered sports bar and a dilapidated unisex hairdressers, lies a little haven of Islamic tranquillity.
Here, while Brazil is rushing to be ready in time for next month’s Fifa World Cup, staff at the Federation of Muslim Associations in Brazil (Fambras) are calmly preparing their own warm welcome for the 600,000 foreign football fans expected to arrive in the coming weeks.
Fambras has several initiatives to “help dispel prejudice and ignorance of Islam”, said Ali Hussein El Zoghbi, the federation’s Brazil-born vice-president.
A written guide has been produced as well as a smartphone application, a cuddly bearded mascot called Salaminho (Little Salam) and a hotline to advise visitors on how to observe Islam while in Brazil.
June 28 marks the start of the knockout stages of football’s grandest showcase and for a growing number of Brazil’s residents, it also marks the likely start of Ramadan.
Although still a small minority among Brazil’s estimated 202 million people, the Muslim population is on the rise after an influx in recent years of refugees from Syria, Lebanon and Palestine.
There are no reliable figures for the number of Muslims in Brazil. Mr El Zoghbi estimates the country is now home to about 1.5 million Muslims, the largest concentration of which can be found close to Iguazu Falls. With tens of thousands of Muslims expected to visit Brazil during the World Cup, the country’s 80-odd mosques can expect to be in high demand this Holy Month.
“We expect around 50,000 Muslim fans to visit for the World Cup, mainly from Iran, Nigeria and Algeria, but also from countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, Malaysia and the Gulf region,” said Mr El Zoghbi, sitting under a framed photograph of Mecca and flitting between Arabic and Portuguese.
“We see this as a great chance not only to welcome Muslims, but also to spread the positive word of Islam to non-Muslims.”
The 28-page booklet, Muslim Fan Guide — Salam Brazil, is written in English, with a French version in production. It details everything from prayer times and mosque locations in each of the country’s 12 host cities to information about Islam in Brazil. Helpful phone numbers, including the UAE Embassy, are also included.
Six of the 32 nations in next month’s tournament are from countries where Islam is significantly present, said the tourism ministry.
Algeria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cameroon, Iran, Ivory Coast and Nigeria all have large Muslim populations. Nations such as France and Germany also have Muslim players, including Franck Ribery and Mesut Ozil.
“In some of these countries — Iran is a good example — football is a national passion like it is in Brazil,” Mr El Zoghbi, whose father moved to Sao Paulo from Lebanon in 1949, said. “We have contacted all 32 teams and told them we are available to help in whatever they need.”
André Lara, Mr El Zoghbi’s Brazilian colleague at Fambras, sips an Arabic coffee as he details the plans further. The federation will visit the base hotels of each of the six countries before the teams start to arrive. There, hotel staff will be briefed on the workings of Ramadan and any special requirements that may be expected of them.
As well as printing 65,000 guides, Fambras will launch its smartphone app on Sunday. It will include a compass to locate the direction of Mecca and a list of halal restaurants in each of the host cities.
A 12-hour daily phone service — in English, Arabic, Spanish, French and Portuguese — will also launch before the tournament starts.
A branded “Salam Bus” will travel around the country distributing a wide range of books in several languages, added Ahmed Khalaf, an Egyptian who works at Fambras. The bus will carry the slogans “Conheco o Islam” (Know Islam) and “Islam é Paz” (Islam is peace).
“I have lived in Brazil for four years,” Mr Khalaf said. “The situation is different as the Muslim here is in the minority, but the most important thing is still to make sure your religion is the most important part of your life. For instance, I make all my prayers, even if I am on the metro. People take an interest and ask me questions, but it is never a problem. People are open-minded.”