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Monday, January 18, 1999 Published at 16:14 GMT


Fasting over for Muslims

A time for celebration at Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem

Muslims around the world are celebrating the Eid al-Fitr festival, marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

In keeping with an Eid tradition, some governments have granted amnesties to political and other prisoners.

The Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, provoked criticism from Israel by releasing dozens of prisoners held without charge in Palestinian jails. They reportedly included some low-level members of militant Islamic group.

Morocco pardoned more than 500 prisoners and commuted life sentences on two others. The official MAP news agency did not specify which category of prisoners benefited from the amnesty.

[ image: New clothes and shoes are out-of-reach for many Iraq]
New clothes and shoes are out-of-reach for many Iraq
In Iraq, Muslims celebrate their ninth Eid al-Fitr under a stringent United Nations embargo. It has been an opportunity for the government press to attack "Americans, Zionists, Britons and those treacherous Arabs officials who follow them".

Eid al-Fitr, meaning 'festival of the breaking of the fast', is triggered by the sighting of the new moon at dusk on the previous day.

Sunni and Shi'a together

For the first time in recent years, Iran, with its population of Shi'a Muslims is celebrating on the same day as orthodox Sunni Muslims in countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

However, for Lebanese Shi'as and many Iraqi Shi'as, the Eid takes place on Tuesday, while the Sunni populations of those countries celebrate on Monday.

[ image: The Eid is on Tuesday in Pakistan, so they are stocking up in Lahore]
The Eid is on Tuesday in Pakistan, so they are stocking up in Lahore
Among the countries celebrating on Monday are Afghanistan, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, the Palestinian Authority, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Indonesia, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Tunisia and Turkey have announced that the Eid takes place on Tuesday.

The fast has gone on for 29 or 30 days, depending on when the first moon of Ramadan moon was sighted in December.

The timing of the Eid might reflect some underlying differences between the different Muslim factions, but the celebrations are universally joyous and optimistic.

The first day of the new month, Shawwal, means an end to the rigours of 30 days of fasting.

During Ramadan all Muslims, except those exempt from fasting, are forbidden food, drink, smoking and sexual intercourse from the first light of dawn until sunset.

Time for celebration

Many mosques have to put on extra congregational noon prayers for the Eid; it is traditional to wear new clothes and to give presents to children; families gather for special meals and go on visits.

It is also a time to think about the poor and to give money and clothes to those less fortunate.

In the Northern Hemisphere, Muslims have been enjoying the shortest daylight hours for 30 years. The lunar calendar is approximately 11 days shorter than the solar calendar, so next year will be even easier, with the month straddling to the shortest day of the year.

This year has also been unusual for the effect of Ramadan on world affairs. The United States and the United Kingdom were both keen to get the bombardment of Iraq over with before the Holy Month began.

Both President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair delivered Ramadan messages to Muslims at the beginning of the month.

Most of their Muslim allies were uncomfortable about bombs falling on Baghdad as the fast began.

Ramadan is a time for harmony and re-asserting one's faith in God and the message of the Prophet Muhammad. But in times of war and injustice, the faithful can be driven to increased zeal.

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