Interfaith collaboration flourishes in Panama ahead of papal visit

Panama City, Jan 18 (epa-efe).- Aided by several students from the Islamic school, the imam of Panama City's Jummah Masjid mosque stacks cases of bottled water that his congregation will distribute among the pilgrims who gather here next week when Pope Francis comes to Panama for World Youth Day (WYD).

"We are going to distribute 15,000 bottles of cold water. As hot as the weather is right now, cold water is going to be a treasure," Ismael Mankda says.

Jummah Masjid, an imposing whitewashed building with a green dome, is located just feet away from Panama City's seaside boulevard, where some of the largest events of the Jan. 22-27 WYD will take place.

A score of Muslim volunteers will be stationed on the side of the mosque with coolers full of water bottles to help the thousands of visiting Catholic pilgrims cope with the stifling heat and intense sun.

This will be the first time the WYD is held in a Central American country.

Mankda, the descendant of Indian immigrants, said that the Islamic community decided to participate in the WYD because "it is not just a Catholic event, but an event for the country and the region."

"Here we have very good communication among all the religions. The churches even bring tourists to us to learn about the mosque because it was the first one built in Central America," he told EFE.

In Panama, interfaith collaboration is not just for special occasions, Mankda says.

Diversity is part of the identity of this young country of 4 million inhabitants, which - because of its geographical position and its role in maritime trade - is a melting pot of races, cultures, ethnicities and religions.

While 80 percent of Panamanians are Catholics, the country is also home to more than 7,000 Muslims and to the largest Jewish community in Central America, numbering 15,000.