In about 50 countries across the world, some 1.6 billion Muslims have begun fasting from sunrise to sunset for the 30 days of Ramadan. It occurs every year during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and as much as it’s celebrated by those who choose to participate, it also brings a heightened pressure for non-Muslims if they do not agree that they should be forced to fast.
Often the pressure comes from social discrimination but in a country such as Algeria or Morocco, where Islam is the state religion, breaking the Ramadan fast in public is punishable by a fine and imprisonment.
Activism during the month of Ramadan is increasingly making headlines in Algeria.
A demonstration demanding the freedom of religion and conscience was held across Kabylie, the northern region, today 3rd July. A majority of the nation’s Christians are Kabyle Berber, and many object to being forced to fast at this time of year.
Last year, during Ramadan, there was a joint effort by the police in the same region to arrest public non-fasters. This sparked a wave of outrage among human rights activists, and in reaction, hundreds staged picnics in protest against ‘forced’ fasting.
This year, a call for a similar demonstration was posted on Facebook, to demand the respect of freedom of conscience.
The statement says, “…Do you dream of a tolerant, multi-religious, modern and free Kabylie where religion is a private matter, a Kabylie free from political manipulation? Practicing Muslim or not, Christian, Jewish, pagan, agnostic, atheist, come join us at the Rally for freedom of religion and conscience in Kabylie on July 3.”
The organizers said the rally was also held in memory of Katia Bengana, who was murdered by Islamists for refusing to wear the hijab at the age of 17 on February 28, 1994, in Algiers.
Ramadan Pressures on Christians
For Cala, a 26-year-old student, the social pressure is most intense from Muslim relatives.
Although she has been a Christian for several years, she is forced by her Muslim father to continue participating in the Ramadan fast.
“I converted to Christianity since my early age, thanks to my older brother, one of the first Christians in my village. He shared the message of the Gospel with me and I accepted it easily. But my father opposed my conversion and he tries to control my life,” she told World Watch Monitor.
Cala is strictly forbidden to eat during the hours of fasting, roughly from sunrise to sunset.
“As we approached the month of Ramadan, my father warned me in advance. He wants me to observe the month-long fasting. He wants me to stay with my married sisters and other relatives, to make sure I do not eat,” she explains.
Yet, Cala said her father was not always so strict. He changed when his fellow villagers began to pressure him following the conversion of members of her family to Christianity.
“I remember it was my father himself who brought home a Bible that was offered to him. My brother was converted first, then some of my sisters and me. When the villagers became aware of our conversion, they began to put pressure on my father. They threatened to exclude him from the village and no longer speak to him,” she tells.
As the social pressure mounted, and he feared losing his place in the village, Cala’s father forced his children to fast during Ramadan and not to speak openly speak about their Christian faith.
Many Christian converts in Algeria have expressed the same experience while still living with their parents.
Speaking with World Watch Monitor, Sirah another Algerian Christian who converted from Islam said, “My family puts tremendous pressure on me during Ramadan. They always insist that I have to fast, although they know that I converted to Christ. It is as if they refuse to admit that I became a Christian.”
This pressure is not exclusive to Christians. People of other faiths and none, such as atheists, are also facing pressure from Islamic clerics and security forces. In 2010, two Algerian Christians were taken to court for publicly breaking the fast, although they were later acquitted.
Meanwhile, in neighboring Morocco, eating during Ramadan is also a controversial issue. On Monday, June 30, two organizations held a press conference at the headquarters of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH) in Rabat to demand the right to eat in public during Ramadan, without being harassed by the authorities.
The ”Alternative Movement for Individual Freedoms” and the “Council of former Muslims ” have criticized Article 222 of the Moroccan Penal Code, which is used as a pretext to punish anyone eating in public during Ramadan, media report.
The Article 222 says: ”Whoever, while known for his membership in the Muslim religion, ostensibly breaks the fast in a public place during the time of Ramadan, without grounds permitted by this religion, is punishable by imprisonment of one to six months and a fine of 12 to 120 dirhams.”
Last year, a young man aged 19, was sentenced to three years in prison after he was arrested by a police patrol for smoking a cigarette, an act that is also forbidden during fasting hours, in the month of Ramadan.
For non-fasters, the prohibition of eating in public during Ramadan is a hindrance to personal freedoms guaranteed by Article 3 of the Moroccan Constitution which says ” Islam is the state religion, which guarantees all the free exercise of religion.”
NOTE: While fasting is also a spiritual discipline for Christians, many converts from a Muslim background find fasting during Ramadan incompatible with their new-found faith and practice.