SIDON, Lebanon: The municipality of Abra has retracted a memo that urged non-Muslim citizens to abstain from eating in public during Ramadan, after officials condemned the mayor of the Sidon suburb for violating citizens’ freedom of belief.
The original memo, released by Abra Mayor Walid Nicolas al-Mchantaf last Wednesday following a request from Sidon Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Nassar, called on residents to be considerate of fasting Muslims and refrain from dining at restaurants and cafes during the holy month of Ramadan.
But a municipality statement released Monday retracted the request and said that it was no longer valid.
“[Abra] stands by its commitment to the provisions of the Constitution, especially the provision protecting freedom of belief, and therefore the municipality did not and will not interfere with the operating hours of local restaurants, cafes and nightclubs located within the scope of the municipality,” it said.
The U-turn came after Abra’s mayor came under fire for releasing the memo, with politicians saying Lebanon’s diversity needed to be protected rather than reined in.
The Kataeb Party last week called on the Abra municipality to retract this “major mistake against Muslims and Christians,” while the Popular Nasserite Organization’s secretary-general, MP Osama Saad, said the memo contravened Lebanese laws and the Human Rights Charter.
“It is not permissible for anyone to seek to impose their views and beliefs on others by any means, especially since we live in a society characterized by religious, sectarian and intellectual diversity,” Saad said.
He stressed the need to maintain Lebanon’s diversity and protect it, as well as to face foreign interferences aimed at eliminating it.
Lebanon is characterized by citizens’ respect of each others’ religious beliefs, especially fasting, he said, “therefore the Lebanese do not need any statement or guidance in that regard.”
The memo prompted many residents of Abra, a predominantly Christian suburb, to express their fears that an Islamist lifestyle is increasingly being imposed on them. The neighborhood’s growing Muslim community has received significant attention since last year, when deadly clashes took place between the Army and Islamist militants affiliated with fugitive Sheikh Ahmad Assir.
During Ramadan, which begins at the end of this week, observant Muslims abstain from food, water and sex between sunrise and sunset.
Sources told The Daily Star that followers of the Sidon mufti, who issued the decision, had gone to restaurants in the area and asked their owners not only to refrain from serving alcohol during Ramadan, but also to refrain from serving food during the day.
Speaking to The Daily Star, Nassar explained that he was only performing his Muslim duties as mufti.
“This is something we practice, as do all religious Muslim and Christian leaders during religious events of a general nature,” he said.
Nassar added that municipalities had no obligation to follow through with the decision, “but obviously we went against political directions in interviews and statements, as their reaction was to move against us.”
He said politicians had lied and slandered the community by saying there was a higher power in Sidon responsible for Muslim-Christian communication and accused them of ignorance for saying the decision went against individual and legal freedoms.
“Coexistence is each one of us maintaining his identity and respecting his colleague’s identity and holy places, and civil peace stems from these understandings based on tolerance and familiarity entrusted by our parents and grandparents,” Nassar said.
He added that inciting such strife was the result of some leaders seeking personal gains at the expense of security and stability and that this was proof politicians were behind most of the current sectarian tension.
Regardless of the scandal over the municipality’s statement, Abra was bustling with activity Wednesday, with World Cup flags hanging from balconies and preparations for Ramadan decorations underway.
Outside his liquor store, Abu Rana said his customers were mostly from the Muslim community and that they usually stopped buying alcoholic drinks during the holy month, adding that even Christians voluntarily decreased their intake of alcoholic beverages in support of their fellow residents.
“Personally, I don’t allow alcohol to be drunk near my store or else what would be the meaning of coexistence?” Abu Rana told The Daily Star.
Resident Rima Khoury justified the municipality’s statement, saying it was not “as repressive and compulsory as it was made out to be,” but was instead aimed at bolstering coexistence and respect for others.
A nearby restaurant owner, who asked to remain anonymous, said he would keep the restaurant’s delivery service active during Ramadan.
Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya’s political representative in south Lebanon Bassam Hammoud released a statement saying he supported the municipality’s decision and was surprise at the chaos it caused.
“All the Lebanese and politicians sing the praises of coexistence and keeping civil peace. In Sidon a Christmas tree is placed in the middle of Nijmeh Square, and if someone dared ask why, he would be flogged day and night,” he said.
Hammoud pointed out that the mayor’s demand to respect Ramadan rituals “is not a crime,” and added that Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya would put up Ramadan-themed decorations as it usually did along Abra’s streets and neighborhoods.