x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Ramadan unites faiths in Jordan

Although tensions have risen between Muslims and Christians, Jordan remains a pillar of peaceful coexistence.

Jordanians meet for the iftar or breaking fast meal provided by a charity in Amman.
Jordanians meet for the iftar or breaking fast meal provided by a charity in Amman.

AMMAN // Haneen Bisharat, 18, is looking forward to experience what it feels like to fast during Ramadan in solidarity with her Muslim university friends. "I want to fast for an entire day and see how my friends can stay without food and water until the evening," said Ms Bisharat, who is a Christian. Christians, who compose about four per cent of Jordan's 5.8 million population, live in harmony, for the most part, with Muslims in a country that prides itself on its religious tolerance.

As a minority in a Muslim country, most Christians do not seem to find it difficult to respect the ban on eating and drinking in public during the daylight hours. "Temperatures are very high, and when we want to drink, we look for a vacant lecture hall. We don't want anyone to see us, we respect other people's feelings," Ms Bisharat said. Father Nabeel Haddad, executive director of the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Centre, said Christians and Muslims had long been able to coexist peacefully in Jordan.

"I believe Ramadan is a time where we show our solidarity and respect to our Muslim friends," he said. Fr Haddad started hosting an iftar banquet for Muslim men and statesmen eight years ago. "By such functions, there is a message, and that is to show respect to our Muslim brethren's freedom and way of worship ? that we can love and respect those who are different from us," he said. Muslim and Christian leaders pledged this year at a conference on coexistence their commitment to promote respect for religious freedoms and symbols and banned their desecration.

Tensions have been rising between Muslims and Christians in the region in recent years, partly due to US foreign policy, the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories, Islamist extremism and the depiction of offensive cartoons of the prophet. But for the most part, Jordan has remained an example of peaceful coexistence. Under Jordan's constitution, religious faiths are allowed to practice but cannot proselytise. In February, several preachers were thrown out of the country for trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.

In a recent sermon at the Greek Orthodox Church in West Amman, Father Ibrahim Dabour told his congregation about the importance of supporting Muslims during Ramadan. "Fasting in the first place is for God and to feel with the poor and needy," he said. "It is a duty for Christians to show respect and not eat in front of those who are fasting." Last year, the church organised a banquet of mercy for Muslim rubbish cleaners at the church's hall.

Volunteers from the Middle East Council of Christian Churches have been preparing parcels with basic food items that include frying oil, rice, lentils, sugar, coffee and tea that are being distributed this month to some 300 needy Muslim families. Despite the spirit of solidarity, some Christians, and Muslims too, complain how life comes to a grinding halt during Ramadan. "The official paperwork at the government departments becomes interrupted and delayed," said Mai Haddadin, a 50-year-old mother of three. "If I want to renew my passport or pay taxes, I postpone such work till after Ramadan."

"With fasting, we feel that people become tense and angry. I hear my neighbours quarrelling more often, while the traffic accidents become even worse," she said. On the first day of Ramadan, 190 traffic accidents took place during the first four hours, according to Al Ghad newspaper. While Ramadan has turned into a festive occasion in recent years, with crescents and stars and flickering lights decorating homes, some Christians feel the holy month has taken on the commercial trappings of Christmas.

A Muslim version of Santa Claus wearing a turban, known as Abu al Eid, was created last year during Eid al Fitr. He and distributed presents to needy children. "Ramadan is becoming commercialised. It is becoming like Christmas. I find it strange that Ramadan is taking after the western culture," Ms Haddadin said. But many Christians enjoy Ramadan's evenings, which have a mood of their own. Most hotels, restaurants and cafes have redecorated their interiors and pitched large tents, where Christians alongside Muslims spend the nights smoking argilas and playing cards.

"I love Ramadan's atmosphere. It is part our culture," said Hala Khoury, 41, a Christian. "We always go out with friends to Ramadan tents." "My sons feel the difference in this month, and in order for them to get used to the fact that others are fasting, I take them to fast food restaurants during iftar from time to time." @Email:smaayeh@thenational.ae