Opening hours for food
stalls causing a stir this

Food stall owners in Banda Aceh, whose numbers have flourished during the month of Ramadan, claim that limited opening hours imposed by the provincial administration are hindering their profits.

Under regulations set by the Aceh administration, stalls selling food for breaking the fast are only allowed to open at 4 p.m. Any earlier, and the Widayatul Hisbah (WH) sharia police have the authority to seize merchandise from them.

"Ramadan is a great opportunity for us to earn extra money for celebrating Idul Fitri," Abdullah, a street-stall owner, told The Jakarta Post.

Due to the regulation, Abdullah said he was earning less than he would on normal days, despite the fact he needed extra savings for the costly Idul Fitri holiday season.

Following the introduction of sharia law in Aceh in 2003, the provincial administration established the WH to ensure that Islamic regulations were adhered to.

Besides monitoring food stalls, the sharia police have also been observing Muslim behaviour during the fasting month.

Two residents of Banda Aceh, 39-year-old Cot Mesjid and 43-year-old Tiar, were caught by the WH eating food at a stall on Jl Loring Sayur recently.

The street is famous for its food center that caters to non-Muslims, especially the Chinese-Indonesian community in Banda Aceh.

"We arrested them and brought them to the WH station to reprimand and advise them against repeating the offense," Banda Aceh WH commander, Efendi, told the Post.

The two offenders were required to report to the WH office for parole for three consecutive days. Later they were let off, provided they promised not to break the law again.

"These men, who violated sharia law, promised not to repeat the offence.

If they violate the regulation three times they could face a harsher punishment in the form of caning," said Efendi.

Besides conducting raids on established restaurants and food stalls, the WH also patrol places prone to breaching sharia law during Ramadan, such as stores that sell snacks along the city sidewalks. Clerics affiliated with the Aceh Ulama Dayah Association (HUDA) expressed their concerns that the apparent boom in food stalls remaining open during Ramadan could disturb religious harmony in Aceh.

The notices prohibiting Muslims from entering restaurants can be regarded as a form of harassment by the community," HUDA secretary general, Tengku Faisal Ali, told the Post.

Faisal said while his group believed religious harmony had existed in Aceh for some time, the presence of food stalls remaining open during Ramadan - despite the fact they are allocated for non-Muslims and fasting is a religious obligation - has the potential to spark conflict among religious groups.

More than 98% of Aceh is Muslim, with Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism collectively representing less than three percent of the total population.

"We call on those operating food stalls prohibiting Muslims from entering during the fasting period to close their shops to prevent social unrest," said Faisal.Islam exempts menstruating women and people making long journeys from fasting, he said.

"But they are also obligated to abide by the rules. They can eat and drink, provided they are not in public," said Faisal.

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