ISLAMABAD (DPA) — On a hot Ramadan day, Sarfaraz Michael slowly pushes his vegetable cart through a Muslim neighbourhood of Pakistan's garrison city Rawalpindi.
Michael, a Christian, is perspiring and feels thirsty, but drinking or eating anything in public during the Muslim holy month is punishable by jail or a fine, or both.
"I will wait until I go home or find a fellow non-Muslim household," he says, wiping sweat from his forehead.
The problem also affects Muslims who are exempt from the obligation to fast, such as the pregnant, elderly or infirm, who often fear the police and social pressure from conservatives.
Last week, one man and his girlfriend bought snacks from a bakery in Islamabad, drove out to a deserted road in the suburbs and quickly ate the food hoping they would not be seen.
"We were afraid that somebody would find us eating and hand us over to police for violating the Ehtiraam-e-Ramadan ordinance," the man said.
The law introduced by former military dictator Ziaul Haq in 1981 prescribes up to three months in jail and a fine of about five dollars for eating or drinking in public.
"No person who, according to the tenets of Islam, is under an obligation to fast shall eat, drink or smoke in a public place during fasting hours in the month of Ramadan," the law says.
High court lawyer Shahbaz Rajput said that in practice, the authorities do not take into consideration the exceptions provided in the scriptures to non-Muslims, the elderly and sick Muslims.
"Under these laws, all restaurants are closed in the country, creating severe problems for those who want to have regular breakfast or lunch," he said.
Analysts say the blanket implementation not only violates basic rights but also creates health complications. The start of Ramadan last month coincided with a brutal heat wave that killed more than 1,250 people in Pakistan.
Most of the people died due to "aggravated [dehydration] due to fasting in extreme weather," according to an official statement.
Islamabad-based human rights activist Tahira Abdullah said religious practice should be an individual matter, not dictated by government.
"There should be no such laws for anyone and no strict enforcement of laws regarding fasting by the government, as fasting in Ramadan is a private and personal matter between a human being and God," she said.
"It is not just an issue of human rights, it is a greater issue for health reasons."
Despite the deaths linked to fasting, officials have not relaxed the laws even to allow people to drink water in public, citing the disapproval of Muslim clerics.
Religious scholar Maulana Abdul Qadoos Muhammadi argues that respecting Ramadan in public is a "moral obligation" for everyone, including non-Muslims.
"These who do not fast should behave as if they were fasting," he said. "Non-Muslims and elderly or sick Muslims can eat but they should show respect for fasting Muslims and avoid eating or drinking openly."
Hardly anyone has challenged religion-related laws since the 2011 killing of the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, and Christian minister Shahbaz Bhatti by extremists after they demanded changes in controversial laws that would have made blasphemy punishable by death.
Amid the Ramadan crackdown by police and intimidation by hardline Muslims, "sometimes I think that I should also start fasting in Ramadan like Muslims," Michael says.
(Reporting by Sajjad Malik)
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