UNIVERSITY PARKWAY -- Saturday was a rare opportunity for many to see inside a mosque and learn more about the Islamic faith and the Muslim culture. They came with questions and open minds, and local Muslims were more than happy to explain their ways.
Sylvia Hancock, 77, of Venice, was among those who came to show support for the Muslim community in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris and California, which have been attributed to Islamic terrorists.
"I wanted to show that we are not afraid," Hancock said. "These people are welcome to be here like everyone else."
She happily browsed many of the booths of traditional Muslim women's apparel, and said she was glad to show support.
"I found a beautiful scarf and some great essential oils," Hancock said.
Afterward, she said she was looking forward to picking up some literature so she, too, could become better informed. It was her first time visiting the Islamic Center or any mosque, she added.
And the food also looks good, she said smiling.
She was not alone.
Hundreds came out for the second annual International Food and Crafts Festival at the Islamic Society of Sarasota and Bradenton, 4350 N. Lockwood Ridge Road, Sarasota, where they toured the inside of the mosque, purchased crafts, enjoyed Muslim food from different nationalities, witnessed traditional prayers and engaged with local Muslims on topics about the Islamic faith and Muslim culture.
One of many active members at the event, Ruta Juouniari, 39, said she was happy to see so many people come to ask questions in a friendly, casual environment.
By midmorning, she said she already had a few people approach her and say: "We're here to support you guys."
One of the event's goals was to help dispel misconceptions people have about Islam and Muslims because of the actions of some extremist terrorists.
"Most Muslims in this community have the same values as everyone else and just want a good life for their families," she said.
The festival had already drawn a larger crowd before noon than it had the previous year, she and other members agreed.
One of the beauties of the event, she said, was it allowed non-Muslims to visit inside a mosque without having to abide by their customs such as being covered.
"It is intimating," she said.
People were asked to remove their shoes before entering the mosque because members place their foreheads on the floor during prayers.
Ellaine Copeland, 76, of Bradenton, came with question to better understand certain practice in the Muslim culture.
"We're here because of what's happened worldwide and in Canada," she said.
Copeland, joined by two friends and fellow snowbirds, said she had concerns after one incident in Canada where a woman -- Zunera Ishaq -- refused to remove her niqab while being sworn in as a Canadian citizen. The courts ruled it was her right to wear a niqab.
"The hijab (headscarf worn by Muslim women), I don't have a problem with," Copeland said.
The niqab (veil covering face worn with a headscarf), however, makes her feel threatened because she cannot she the person's face.
"My main concern is where woman stand in this religion," she said. "The women have to sit in a separate room and wear headdress as a form of humility. What do the men do for humility?"
Copeland and her friends were stocking up on the literature offered at multiple tables.
"I'm not here to confront. I just want to know what the basis is," Copeland said. "We are trying to be open minded."
Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter@JDeLeon1012.