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Ramadan or Lent? Pakistan's struggle for understanding

Muslim and Christian practices getting mixed up, misunderstandings abound regarding fasting

Ramadan or Lent? Pakistan's struggle for understanding

Pakistani Catholics gather during Easter Mass at a church in Lahore on March 27, 2016. (Photo by Arif Ali/AFP)

Kamran Chaudhry, Lahore

March 20, 2017

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When Lent began, Aman Tair decided to talk about fasting with his Muslim classmates. 

"They started comparing the two periods of abstinence. One asked me why Christians have more days fasting than Muslims. I tried to answer but felt very uncomfortable," Tair told

The 19-year-old architecture student had not experienced impromptu interfaith dialogue sessions before he started at the National College of Arts Lahore in February as he earlier studied in a Christian school.

Tair is among Pakistan's 2 million Christians, in a country where 96 percent of the 185 million people are Muslims. For Muslims, fasting during Ramadan shows their obedience to the precepts of Allah as revealed in the Quran. It is also a means to attain fear of God, control inordinate desires, expiate various sins, among others.

In a country that is no stranger to fasting, some Christians often keep the Lenten fast with the same vigor as their Muslim neighbors, observing a dawn to dusk fast during Lent March 1-April 13, while others go even further by observing a 24-hour fast.

Lahore Archdiocese has asked Catholics to fast every day during Lent and abstain from eating meat on Fridays. Priests have reminded those who do so to maintain the spirit of Christian fast. Ending a daylong fast with a sumptuous meal is contrary to the spirit of repentance called for during Lent.
Father Jahanzeb Iqbal at a March 11 seminar at Lahore Cathedral, to help Catholics such as Tair appreciate the meaning of Lent better, quoted from the gospel to say, "But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face."
Many people asked if fasting in Christianity is farz (Islamic term for religious duty). "Catholics should fast six days in the week except on Sundays," the priest  said.
In his special message for Lent season, Archbishop Sebastian Shah of Lahore urged all Catholics to make forgiveness a highpoint during Lent through fasting.  
"Every Catholic is affected by this season and so in these 40 days every Catholic fasts to focus more on God and so through fasting to remain busy in repentance, forgiveness and works of charity to improve their relations with God and human beings," he said in his message published in Naqib, the oldest Urdu-language Catholic magazine of Lahore Archdiocese. 
"Fasting isn't only about remaining hungry. In fact it is the practice of making one's habits and attitudes positive through continuous repentance. It is the season of inner change (to) get God's grace by asking forgiveness of sins, ask for apology from others, forgive others, help the needy through charity... and find at least one good value in those we always disliked." 
However, according to Asher Nazir, a lay leader, "It's more of a personal preference in our country. Many choose to donate money to the poor instead of abstaining from food. A few people fast for 24 hours while most abstain from eating from noon till 6 p.m.," he said.

 Watch this video featuring Pakistani Catholics attending a talk on Lent at the Sacred Heart Cathedral, Lahore.


Muslim misconceptions

Unlike Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, Lent generally goes unnoticed which is a problem for Christians whose salaries are often not released ahead of Easter nor are they usually allowed to leave in time for the Friday Stations of the Cross, a popular devotion during Lent. 

Given the current atmosphere in Pakistan where Christians have faced persecution and are often charged with blasphemy against the Quran and Prophet Mohammed, it is best that Christians keep a low profile during Lent, said Father Iqbal, rector of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Lahore.

"It is a good thing our 40 days goes without being noticed by the majority. Our concept of fasting is different. Good deeds require no advertisements," said Father Iqbal.

Several leaders of Islamic groups have either rejected Christian fasting or expressed reservations.

Pir Muhammad Aijaz Ashrafi, media advisor to Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah, a coalition of Islamic groups, said there was "a difference of heaven and earth" between Christian and Muslim fasting.

"Taqwa (righteousness), the main aim of a Muslim fasting, is absent in the Christian practice. Another big example is their lack of respect for Prophet Mohammed. We respect Prophet Isa (Jesus) but there are countless Christian blasphemers in our country," he told

Mujahid Abdul Rasool of the religious-political group Sunni Tehreek rejected Lent altogether. "The Bible of the Christian faith is not in its original form," he said, but added that the state should guarantee minorities their religious freedom and protect their places of worship.


Christian response

To help Christians understand the season of Lent better, awareness programs have been organized in all of Pakistan's seven Catholic dioceses during Lent. Catholic magazines also issue special Lenten editions to guide communities. These measures are being done to address the confusion introduced by mixing local Muslim observances with Lent.

Like their Muslim neighbors, Christian families invite their neighbors and relatives for and Iftar-style dinner, the evening meal traditionally eaten by Muslims to break their fast during Ramadan, said Father Iqbal.

Christians also imitate the Muslim practice of distributing milk and rice outside churches in the evening. "Especially on Good Friday," said Father Iqbal. "They do not stop not matter how much we try. We can only ask them to do this charity in an organized manner."

Another imitation is wearing black mourning clothes on Good Friday, similar to Shia Muslims who wear black when mourning and attending the gatherings of Imam Hussein during Muharram. 

Retired Church of Pakistan Bishop Munawar Rumal Shaw of of Peshawar said Pakistani Christians' understanding of fasting is hopelessly mixed up with Muslim practices. "Many fast for swab (spiritual reward) and this is sad. The Islamic way of understanding influences our whole perception," he said.

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