Table setting at Iftar dinner at restaurant in Turkey
Table setting at Iftar dinner at restaurant in Turkey

In Turkey, the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan has put the spotlight on the increasing divide between rich and poor. The country's growing affluent class, a product of a decade of unprecedented economic growth, has resulted in increasing numbers of people celebrating the iftar dinner at luxurious restaurants and hotels. But that has sparked a growing controversy in the country,

At a park in downtown Istanbul, student Rumeysa Camdereli is helping with the preparations for an iftar dinner in the shadow of 5 star hotels. The meal is free to anyone and it marks the end of a day's fasting during Ramadan. But as Camdereli explains, the weekly event is also to protest the growing conspicuous display of wealth during the Islamic holy month.

"Ramadan is a time that we have to remember the poor and remember that we can be hungry sometime and we have to give our money to poor. This protest tries to say that to people who are having their meals in these luxury hotels," Camdereli said.

The simple menu of soup, cheese and dates is in stark contrast to the iftar dinners at the surrounding 5 star hotels. They cost $100 or more.

At one of those 5 star hotels, restaurant manager Ilker Sonuk is carefully supervising last minute preparations. There is a lavish array of food, including a whole lamb cooking slowly on a spit. Turkey has enjoyed record economic growth for nearly a decade. And celebrating iftar at restaurants like this one is increasingly popular. Ilker Sonuk says there is nothing wrong with people wanting to break their fast at such a luxury place. It's all about choice.

"There are some people who want to have iftar at home with their families, some who want to have iftar with their clients and business friends at hotels. As you can see, we are in the garden. It is a very good atmosphere to have dinner and iftar. For example on Monday. we are going to organize for 500 persons -- 500 person iftar for one of the business companies," Sonuk said.

Members of the government are frequently seen at 5 star iftar dinners. But stung by the protesters' message, the pious Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has criticized ostentatious iftars. And Cemil Cicek, the speaker of parliament and a member of the ruling AK party, launched a blistering attack on expensive iftars while attending one.

"This should be the last Ramadan meal that we are have in such a setting", he said. "Believe me, there are people who need the crumbs of the food that you will send back to kitchen."

The ruling AK Party claims it is the party of the poor. But despite record economic growth, the number of Turks living in poverty has not decreased. Over the nine years that the AK party has been in power, it has remained largely unchanged at 18 percent.

Back at the protest dinner in the nearby park, food is being distributed to the hundreds of people eagerly waiting to break their fast.

The meal starts with prayers. There is not only a hunger for the food, but also the ideas that the iftar stands for, as this woman points out.

"While some people cannot even find food to eat, there are others who pay $300 for an iftar meal -- that is about the minimum monthly wage," she said. "The meaning of fasting is for all Muslims to be equal and to understand each other's situation. That's why we see these luxurious iftars as superfluous and wasteful."

As the iftar slowly winds down, the big clean-up begins for student Camdereli . She says the protest is like Ramadan itself -- it is not about creating divisions but rather bridging the divide in Turkish society.

"Muslim people, non-Muslim people, Turkish people, Kurdish people, everybody in Turkey, can eat their meal together, can share their meal, so that we can bring happiness and justice to this country or to the world in the name of Ramadan," Camdereli said.

The ruling AK party prides itself on its economic record. But that success has also led to a growing divide between rich and poor. Bridging that gap, observers say, could yet be the party's greatest challenge.