The rival Palestinian governments in the West Bank and Gaza argued over mosque sermons and collection of donations during Ramadan, but agreed to start observance together yesterday in a rare note of unity for the holiest period for Muslims.
Ramadan is a month of dawn-to-dusk fasting, prayer in mosques and giving to the poor, and the start date depends on the sighting of a new moon by a country's top cleric. Libya and Nigeria began the fast on Wednesday, but most Muslim countries in the Middle East were to do so yesterday.
With some countries using astronomical calculations and others relying on the naked eye, starting times often differ. However, the ruling on when the fast begins can also have political or sectarian dimensions, as some countries or sects try to differentiate themselves from rivals by picking a different day.
Iraq's Sunnis were to start fasting yesterday. But in the holy city of Najaf, the office of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite cleric, announced that Ramadan would begin today for the nation's majority Shiites.
In a rare turn of events, however, Shiite Iran announced it would be in sync with mainly Sunni Arab countries, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and start Ramadan yesterday.
For the Palestinians, Ramadan is marred this year by the split between the West Bank and Gaza. In June, the Islamic militant Hamas seized control of Gaza by force, prompting moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to set up a rival government in the West Bank.
Abbas' information minister, Riad Malki, warned mosque preachers this week not to deliver inflammatory or political Ramadan sermons. Abbas' Fatah movement has accused Hamas of using mosques to incite against its political opponents.
Preachers violating the instructions will be fired or sent into early retirement, Malki said.
In the West Bank city of Nablus, Palestinian security forces seized three assault rifles in a local mosque. The intelligence chief in Nablus, Abu Jihad Kmeil, accused Hamas of using mosques for illegal activity. Hamas denied the claim, saying the weapons were planted in the mosque by security officials.
In Gaza, senior cleric Saleh al-Reqeb said the directives from the West Bank were disrespectful to preachers and were meant to muzzle any criticism of Abbas' policies, including his attempt to revive peace talks with Israel.
The Fatah-controlled West Bank government also announced that it would ban fundraising during Ramadan without permission from the religious affairs ministry. Jamal Bawatna, the religious affairs minister in the West Bank, said this would prevent Arab charity from going to Hamas. The flow of local money in Gaza would be difficult to control, he said.
Bawatna said that Hamas had removed the last senior ally of Abbas in the religious affairs ministry in Gaza to ensure its control of all local donations in mosques.
With Gaza cut off from the world, Hamas is hard-pressed to provide for Gazans, especially during Ramadan which is known for its festive mood, large family meals and social get-togethers after sundown.
Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, the prime minister deposed by Abbas, told worshippers in a mosque near his house in the Shati refugee camp in Gaza that his government will prevail.
"Yes our money is little, and the siege is suffocating, and the crossings are closed and the policy of drying up our resources ... is unabating," he said. "But we will share what we have to remain dignified. No one will be able to break us for a few dollars."
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