DUBAI // It has been more than a month since Fatima accepted Islam - and the decision has brought her great inner peace.
The Filipina, a former receptionist, joined more than 250 converts from various faiths, including Christianity and Buddhism, at a day-long event yesterday to welcome new followers.
The New Muslim Retreat, organised by the Islamic Information Centre at the Dar Al Ber Society, was the first in a series of lectures and meetings to help converts to better understand Islam.
Fatima, 31, bowed her head over a well-leafed Arabic-English book containing verses from the Quran and told how Islam had changed her life.
"I feel different now, for me Islam is peace," said Fatima, a Protestant whose name was Cheryl before she became a Muslim on July 20. She fasted for the first time during Ramadan.
"It was so difficult for me to fast but it also taught me patience. Being faithful and embracing Allah is everything for me."
The gathering drew people from Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Uganda, India and Europe.
Like Fatima, many were encouraged by friends or colleagues and gained hope during trying times.
Some hope their siblings will share their new beliefs, but others have not told family back home.
"Deep inside I feel free, I know peace now," said Ibrahim, 25, once John Robert, an office messenger from the Philippines. Three months after making the life-altering decision, he has told his mother but not his father.
"Arab friends encouraged me and I read about Islam before I found myself," he said. "My mother does not fully accept, but inshallah, she will also serve Islam someday."
Rashid Al Junaibi, the director of the Islamic Information Centre, hoped yesterday's function would allow for a deeper understanding of the Quran.
"This is more a cultural gathering to learn their concerns and involve them in prayers," he said.
"It will help complete their journey to Allah, answer questions, clear misconceptions about Islam. We ask them to concentrate on good manners, respect elders, practise Islam not just in name, be a good Muslim and give to charity if they have wealth."
The centre welcomed 1,950 new Muslims last year and 1,200 so far this year.
Ahmed Hamed, an orator on Islam and comparative religion, said the aim was to help followers to stay firm in their new beliefs.
"It is important to keep them steadfast on the faith they have chosen willingly," he said.
"We hope to empower and counsel them. They will face many challenges, get asked questions, and we hope to revive and re-energise their faith."
A turning point for some came when they were unable to give satisfying answers about the faith they were born into.
"I had an argument with two Muslim friends about who made the universe, and that got me thinking," said Abdul Rahman, 47, a security guard.
Previously a Sri Lankan Buddhist named Kishen Ranila, Mr Rahman accepted Islam two years ago. "My friend told me praying to Allah would change my life. And after praying five times a day my behaviour is different, I want to live properly and not do any harm," he said.
Others believed conversion helped relatives to recover from illness.
"I have felt the power of Allah because after praying, my wife who was sick for a long time is now fine," said Abdul Rahman, 35, a Sri Lankan security guard. He said his spouse had suffered from inflammation of the stomach lining, which had since cleared up.
The men are not related. The younger Mr Rahman stopped using his Christian name, Nihal Pereira, two months ago.
"I worshipped statues before but now I live a true life and can pray directly to Allah," he said.