A time of special reflection for converts

Raised as a Catholic, a Filipino embraced Islam during his time in Abu Dhabi because of its 'purity'

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ABU DHABI // Like other Muslim converts, Rene Sorio is celebrating Ramadan this year with his family. They wake up at 3am every day for suhoor and morning prayers, observing fast from sunrise to sunset, share a light iftar meal, and also recite taraweeh, or special prayers, each night. "It is a month filled with blessings," he said. "We reflect on our past, purify our souls, and are actively involved in charity."

Mr Sorio, a 50-year-old physio-therapist, was raised as a Catholic in the Philippines. He converted to Islam on Christmas Day in 1992 and registered as a Muslim at the Abu Dhabi Sharia court the following week. His Muslim name is Ismail. He is not alone. In the first six months of 2009, 486 people embraced Islam in Abu Dhabi, a 14 per cent increase from the same period last year, according to the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department.

The department has an "embracing Islam" section, which facilitates conversions, provides courses to new Muslims and offers them the Quran in various languages. "It was not easy for me," Mr Sorio said, recalling the time when he embraced Islam. "Some friends did not fully understand me. Some labelled me as crazy, like I was going out of my mind." Any friends lost, he said, were replaced by hundreds of brothers who comforted and assisted him in strengthening his faith.

"It was like a 360-degree turnaround at that time, but no one could discourage me because I felt I was on the right path," Mr Sorio said. His son Stephen, whose Muslim name is Dawood, was the next member of the family to embrace Islam. "He was nine at that time and I still remember when we recited the Shahada together at the Sheikh Khalifa Mosque in Al Nasr street in Abu Dhabi in 1992. That started my journey to Islam."

Mr Sorio said his knowledge about Islam, Allah's guidance and the wisdom he learnt had helped him persuade the rest of his family to convert. "In the same year, my wife, sister and my four other children embraced Islam," he said. He was first exposed to Islam in 1984 in Saudi Arabia, he said, but his interest grew while working in the UAE during the 1991 Gulf war, when Iraq invaded Kuwait. His wife, working as a nurse in Kuwait, was pregnant with their fourth child.

"She was trapped," he said. "With her ordeal in a war environment, I became more religious. I started reading Islamic material aside from the Bible. I was looking for divine intervention to free my wife from her suffering." He added: "I was attracted to Islam because of the purity and simplicity of the Islamic faith, and its freedom from dogmas and its obvious truth. It addresses all aspects of life."

Another beauty of Islam is the concept of oneness of God, the respect and reverence to all prophets of God, and the devotion of its followers, he said. His wife and three sons, aged 26, 24 and 14, are staying with him in the capital. His 31-year-old son and 19-year-old daughter are spending Ramadan in the Philippines. "We are trying our best in living our lives according to the Islamic way," he said. Mr Sorio, who also teaches an Arabic language course at the Philippine overseas labour office in Abu Dhabi, said he would deliver lectures about Ramadan to non-Muslims.

"I will be advising them to dress properly, not to eat in public and not offend the sensitivities of Muslims," he said. rruiz@thenational.ae