Ramadan a Dangerous Time for Religious Minorities

The unconscious man was covered in filth, and being rushed to a hospital.

Irfan Masih was a sewer cleaner, and had been stricken by poisonous gases trapped inside a sewer hole. Time was of the essence. But the emergency staff at the hospital in Pakistan’s Sindh province refused to treat Masih — a 30-year-old Christian — until he was thoroughly washed.

Then they cleaned Masih and pumped oxygen into him, but the pump was empty. Lying in the corner of the hospital, Irfan died — as he was gasping for air.

He was never treated by a physician. It was Ramadan, and the doctors were fasting.

“My brother died during the process of cleansing the filth from his body,” Irfan’s brother, Parvez, told a local newspaper. Although Muslim medical professionals across the world do interact with patients in all sorts of conditions during Ramadan, according to Irfan’s mother, the doctors refused to treat him because they were fasting and said her son was “napaak” (unclean).

During Ramadan, Muslims abstain from eating, drinking and having sex during daylight hours. For non-Muslims in Pakistan, the holiday can be a dangerous time. Last year, police severely beat an elderly Hindu man for eating publicly during the holiday. He was eating food given to him by a charity.

Similarly, a 2013 video showed a man who said he was beaten up for eating publicly during the Muslim fasting month.

In Pakistan, people from the Christian community face severe discrimination, and are often given jobs in sanitation. Angered at the doctors’ negligence, people from the Christian community staged a protest outside the press club in Umerkot.

Critics blame Pakistan’s Ehtram-e-Ramadhan ordinance for creating this intolerant environment. Enacted in 1981, the ordinance seeks to ensure that the sanctity of the month of Ramadan is preserved.

Article 3 of the Ramadan ordinance says:

1. No person who, according to the tenets of Islam, is under an obligation to fast shall eat, drink or smoke in a public place during fasting hours in the month of Ramadhan.

2. Whoever contravenes the provisions of sub-section (1) shall be punishable with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to three months, or with fine which may extend to five hundred rupees, or with both.

Although the law does not mention non-Muslims, the closing of all hotels, restaurants and even common food stores during the day does affect their lives.

The law defines a public place as “any hotel, restaurant, canteen, house room, tent, enclosures, road lane, bridge or other place to which the public have access.” It further requires that those places remain closed during all fasting hours.

The ordinance states that it intends to protect the holiness of Ramadan, but while doing so, it clearly violates the principles of fundamental freedoms.

An amendment to the law — passed last month — increases the fine from Rs.500 to Rs.25,000 (about $388) for hotel owners who violate the statute. Television channels and theaters have to pay a minimum fine of Rs.500,000 (about $7,7670) for violating the law.

How can someone protect the sanctity of any “blessed month” by adopting such harsh, coercive and tyrannical measures. Respect is earned, not imposed.

When the state starts legislating on religious grounds, it creates an environment of intolerance toward religious minorities, and legitimizes discrimination. Pakistan has done this with its “Ehtram-e-Ramadhan ordinance.” Just last week, four people were arrested by the police for eating during fasting hours.

This ordinance enshrines intolerance and violates basic human rights. By closing down all the restaurants and food stores, it not only infringes upon the rights of various religious minorities in Pakistan, but also on those Muslims who do not want to comply with the ordinance.

Silence from the local media and Pakistani human rights groups over this controversial law is quite depressing.

Ammar Anwer

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