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Town Hall bid to extend Ramadan fast to non-Muslims fuels row

PUBLISHED: 13:20 28 August 2008 | UPDATED: 13:34 05 October 2010

A SENIOR councillor has condemned as "divisive" a move by Town Hall leaders to extend Muslim fasting rules on non-Muslim politicians during the holy month of Ramadan. Tower Hamlets council's Lib Dem group leader Stephanie Eaton said she would be ignoring arrangements which favoured one religious group over others. The row was sparked by an email sent to all councillors this week outlining arrangements for Town Hall committee meetings next month, which marks the Muslim fasting period of Ramadan



Ted Jeory

A SENIOR councillor has condemned as “divisive” a move by Town Hall leaders to extend Muslim fasting rules on non-Muslim politicians during the holy month of Ramadan.

Tower Hamlets council’s Lib Dem group leader Stephanie Eaton said she would be ignoring arrangements which favoured one religious group over others.

“The Liberal Democrats have enormous respect for the contribution of all faith groups and cultures to the life of the community,” she said.

“But we fervently believe that the rules of any one religion should not be imposed upon others.”

The row was sparked by an email sent to all councillors this week outlining arrangements for Town Hall committee meetings next month, which marks the Muslim fasting period of Ramadan.

It said that new council leader Lutfur Rahman and his deputy, Siraj Islam, had requested that meetings be kept to a minimum to accommodate fasting councillors.

They have also asked all other councillors to resist eating until the breaking of the fast at sunset.

It is the first time such a request has been made and it comes as Ramadan falls earlier this year during the longer daylight hours.

Council bosses have also ordered that the Town Hall’s business agenda should also be reduced, with only seven scheduled committee meetings for the entire month, to deal with the Ramadan restrictions.

Officers have also been barred from arranging any more and asked to find ways of dropping some of the scheduled seven.

Those going ahead generally start at about 6.30pm, so with sunset due to fall just after 7.30pm at the beginning of September and around 6.30pm by the end of Ramadan, the breaking of the fast, known as Iftar, will take place during meetings.

At those points, there will be 45 minute adjournments to allow members to eat and pray, council leaders have ordered.

But it is the arrangements for the food and other refreshments that has angered Cllr Eaton and the rest of her party, which includes two Muslim councillors.

Normally, tea, coffee and sandwiches are set aside for councillors to nibble at during evening meetings.

But during Ramadan, these will be reduced and complemented by Iftar food packs containing chicken, lamb and vegetarian snacks.

However, in his email the council’s head of democratic services John Williams said: “It is requested that members do not partake of any refreshments until after the Iftar refreshments are served.”

Cllr Eaton said that was going too far.

She added: “We object to the request that non-Muslim councillors observe the fasting rules for Ramadan.

“This sends out the wrong message to our community. Our community consists of a huge number of different religions, all of which should be valued, and no one religion should be accorded more status or influence than others.

“Freedom of belief is an important human right, and we Liberal Democrat councillors, Muslim and non-Muslim, agree that this request is inappropriate.”

She has also written to Town Hall bosses about her concerns that their move “will not enhance community cohesion and asking for their reassurance that no faith is given any particular status or priority in the operation or decisions of the council.”

Within hours of her contacting the East London Advertiser and making a complaint to new council leader Lutfur Rahman, the Town Hall launched a damage-limitation exercise.

In a climb-down statement, the council said the email had been sent after complaints from some councillors last year that non-Muslims had been eating their Iftar packs.

Despite the clear request in the email, the council statement said: “There is absolutely no suggestion that during Ramadan non-Muslim councillors have been asked to refrain from eating or drinking when Muslims are observing the fast.

“As normal, water will be provided at council meetings taking place during Ramadan.

“Tea, coffee, Iftar packs and non Iftar snacks will be available in a separate room for all councillors.

“All that’s being asked for is courtesy to be shown to the sensitivities around some councillors eating during council meetings whilst others in the room are fasting.

“Non-Muslim councillors have simply been asked to ensure that there is Iftar food available for Muslim councillors, because in previous years Muslim councillors wanting to break their fast followings prayers had found that the Iftar packs had been eaten.”

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