JERUSALEM—In the Armenian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, the shops and restaurants are adorned with Christmas trees and decorations well into the month of January. For the Eastern Rite Armenians, the Latin Catholic celebrations of Jesus' Nativity are only a prelude to their own Christmas festivities, which began Jan. 18.
Despite the festive Christmas mood that permeates the district at this time of year, it is another religious tradition—the Muslim holy month of Ramadan—that is occupying their thoughts today. Since Ramadan began in late December, the Christians of the Holy Land have consciously avoided eating, drinking, or smoking around Muslim friends and associates.
During Ramadan, the majority of the world's 1 billion Muslims do not eat, drink, smoke, or engage in sexual relations between sunrise and sunset. Abstaining from worldly comforts, the Koran (the Muslim holy book) says, is one of the paths to spiritual enlightenment and empathy for the less fortunate.
One of the five Pillars of Faith, or holy commandments, of Islam (along with faith, prayer, charity, and Haj, or pilgrimage to Mecca), Ramadan is the holiest month of the Muslim calendar. This year, it falls during the month of January.
Aware of Ramadan's importance to even secular Muslims, non-Muslims make a point of being considerate to adherents, not only out of respect but to avoid conflict.
“No one would bother me if I ate outside, but I'd get some nasty looks,” says a Russian Orthodox teenager winding his way through the Christian Quarter of the Old City, a neighborhood that, despite its name, is now predominantly Muslim. “Why insult or antagonize people when you don't have to?”
He adds that both his parents and teachers urged him to be “sensitive” to the needs of his Muslim friends. “When you think about it, it's not nice to flaunt your food or a cigarette in front of someone who can't have one. I'm not going to fast myself—I'm a Christian—but I don't have to tempt people by being insensitive.”
In such strictly Islamic countries as Iran and Saudi Arabia, violating the rules of Ramadan is a punishable offense, and non-Muslims dare not eat or smoke in public. Although Jordan and Syria also ban such activities in public, offenders are rarely prosecuted. There are no such laws in the Holy Land, but Christians and Jews try to be considerate of Muslim sensibilities, all the same.
On rare occasions, such consideration may have meant the difference between life and death. Rafael Yisraeli, a professor of Islam and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, notes that Middle Eastern countries have witnessed “occasional outbursts of violence” during Ramadan.
“In 1981 there was a popular Muslim outburst against the Copts during Ramadan. Sometimes these attacks are aided by the governmental regime, sometimes not. Growing up as a Jew in Morocco, I can say that all Jews were frightened during Ramadan.”
According to Israeli police and military sources, there is no increase in the number of violent incidents between Muslims and non-Muslims during the holy month.
“There is certainly the potential for more friction during this period, but it hasn't translated into violence or any other kinds of incidents,” says a military source who spoke on condition of anonymity.
If anything, says the source, Ramadan is a time of unparalleled cooperation between Jews and Arabs.
“We've instructed our soldiers serving [in the West Bank or predominantly Muslim East Jerusalem] to refrain from eating, drinking, or smoking around Muslims, and that's true in our joint patrols [of Israeli and Palestinian soldiers who together patrol Palestinian areas].”
To further diffuse tensions, the Israeli Army this year allowed 20,000 Muslim residents of the West Bank to enter Israel for Ramadan prayers without first undergoing a security check. Approximately 200,000 Muslims flocked to Jerusalem's al-Aksa mosque—Islam's third holiest site—on the first Friday of Ramadan.
“Last year we learned that much of the friction and frustration occurs at security checkpoints into Israel. This year we allowed many people in on good faith,” the military source said.
The Catholic Church in the Holy Land also makes an effort to reach out to Muslims during the Islamic holy month.
Archbishop Lutfi Laham, the patriarchal vicar of the Greek Catholic Patriarchate in Jerusalem, notes that Ramadan is a time of goodwill between Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land. “There is no tension—just the opposite,” he says.
In addition to delivering traditional Ramadan greetings from the Vatican, members of the local Church, many of whom are Arabs, happily accept invitations to after-fast meals from their Muslim brethren.
“At the end of Ramadan there's a three-day feast called Id el Fitre, which we attend personally, just as Muslims join us during Christmas and Easter celebrations,” the prelate says.
Archbishop Laham stresses that such good relations are a necessary component to living in the Middle East.
“It's a normal thing. When you're a minority, you must respect the feelings of others. I tell Christians to respect others' feelings and to not eat on the street during Ramadan, just as we don't drive on the Jewish fast day of Yom Kippur.”
Except for Islamic extremists, who have no tolerance for what they view as “infidels,” many Muslims welcome Christian, even Jewish friends in the lively meals that cap the daily fasts.
Despite their many differences, adherents of all three religions have some points in common. Muslims believe that Mohammed received his first revelation from God through the Angel Gabriel 1,400 years ago. Muslims trace their roots back to the patriarch Abraham, and their three prophets are directly descended from Abraham's sons: Mohammed, from the eldest, Ishmael; and Moses and Jesus, from Isaac. Islam views Jesus as a major prophet, not as the Son of God.
Although most Muslims are content to live their lives and to allow others to go about theirs as they see fit, Ramadan is traditionally a time embraced by extremists. For this minority, religious tolerance is anathema.
In the Old City of Jerusalem, one Armenian Christian in his 20s says he is afraid to eat in the Arab marketplace during the holy month, for fear of being harassed or worse.
“Several years ago some Muslim boys beat me up for eating a sandwich in the shuk [market]. I learned my lesson, believe me. But I'm not a Muslim, so why should I be forced to practice another religion against my will?”
While no one can deny that isolated incidents between Muslims and Christians do occur during Ramadan, most of the Christians interviewed said that relations between the two communities are generally friendly.
“Some of the sweetest [Muslims] I know can be very unpleasant, even to customers, after they've fasted all day during Ramadan,” says a Christian ceramist from the Old City. “I know Muslims who get upset at Christians just for carrying a six-pack of beer. Fortunately, most of the Muslims I know aren't fanatics. They're normal people, like you and me.”
Register Middle East Correspondent Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem.