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‘Unclean’ Christian denied treatment dies at Ramadan

UMERKOT CITY, Pakistan (BP) — A Christian sanitation worker whom Muslim doctors declared “unclean” and refused to treat during Ramadan has died from injuries suffered on his job in Pakistan, Morning Star News reported.

Irfan Masih died June 1 of exposure to poisonous gas while trying to clear a sewage line, Morning Star said. Doctors at Umerkot Civil Hospital refused to treat him during Ramadan because the sewerage that dirtied him during the manhole accident made him “unclean” and untouchable, Masih’s brother Baba Masih told Morning Star.

The death comes as the Parliament in the majority Muslim country considers amending the 26-year-old “Respect for Ramadan” law to increase penalties against those who break the fast, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported June 3. Christians often face danger as minorities in majority Muslim countries during the month considered holy in Islam, according to a Mission Network News report during the 2016 observance of Ramadan.

Mike Edens, a New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary dean who served among Muslims in the Middle East for 27 years, described the report of Masih’s death as odd.

“I cannot remember hearing of such an event being attributed to the fast, but there could be many reasons for lack of reporting or my not hearing of such happening,” Edens said.

More accurately, the worker may have been refused treatment because of “tribal and sectarian barriers amplified by Ramadan observance,” Edens said. “Muslims are encouraged to focus their energies and thoughts on God during Ramadan…. When thinking about the creator, professional medical doctors should be helping those around them.”

Christians in Pakistan are typically confined to menial labor by a discriminatory and sectarian caste system. Only 75 Christian families live in Umerkot, and all of them are employed as sanitation workers by the Umerkot Municipal Committee, World Watch Monitor (WWM) reported June 5.

Sources WWM described as “experts on Pakistan” also said Masih’s mistreatment had more to do with a “legacy of the Indian caste system than Islamic theology about how the Ramadan fast could be invalidated by certain ‘restrictions’ on the [one fasting],” WWM wrote.

Masih’s family protested his death, carrying his body from the hospital to the Umerkot Press Club and demonstrating for about 10 hours, Morning Star reported. The Pakistan Medical Association held a counter protest when three doctors named in the case were charged with criminal negligence and manslaughter. A medical examiner’s report said the doctors were at fault to some degree for Masih’s death, but said he did not die as the result of doctors’ negligence, Morning Star said.

Workers such as Masih confined to outdoor manual labor can suffer more than others when Ramadan falls during the heat of summer, Edens said.

“In many Muslim majority populations, public smoking, drinking fluids, or eating are prohibited. Restaurants are closed, or if open to non-Muslims,” Edens said, “clients are served behind closed doors. Non-Muslims (Christians and others) are not required to observe the fast but to publicly avoid disrespect of those who are fasting.”

Pakistan passed its Respect for Ramadan Law in 1981. Civil rights activist Tahira Abdullah said the proposed amendments, tripling fines and imposing three-month jail sentences, target religious minorities.

“When you close down all restaurants and hotels and access to food and water and drinks during the month of Ramadan,” she told Australian Broadcasting, “what about non-Muslims?”

The amendments to the law, already approved by the Senate Standing Committee on Religious Affairs, would fine restaurants and hotels the equivalent of $250, and cinemas as much as $5,000 for breaking the law, WWM reported. Citizens who break the law, which prohibits smoking as well as eating, could be fined $5 and jailed for three months.

Muslims comprise 95 percent of the population there; Christians only 2.45 percent, according to Operation World. Ramadan runs through June 24.