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At Philippines’ maximum-security prison, longing for family reunion fills Ramadan prayers

MANILA: At 2 a.m. lights are usually still off at the largest Philippine prison, but the rules are less strict during the month of Ramadan, when Muslim inmates need to wake up earlier to perform their religious duties.

They prepare for early morning prayers and sahoor, the meal they consume before starting their daily fast.

“This is what we have been doing since the start of the month of Ramadan. Alhamdullilah we can continue,” said Yacob, an imam at the prison’s maximum-security compound mosque.

“Ramadan for us is when we can relax ourselves, our hearts, and be at peace. And we are very grateful to our government because here in the Philippines there is respect for religious freedom. We can practice our faith.”

The New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa, Metro Manila, has one of the largest prison populations in the world, housing more than 27,000 people. More than half of them, including 700 Muslim inmates, are in the maximum-security compound.

Yacob told Arab News that Muslim inmates have been observing the same way they have always done it.

At 4 p.m., they get together at the prison kitchen to prepare for iftar.

“We made a request to use the kitchen, which was also granted,” he said, adding they faced no difficulties in religious observance.

“Our only major challenge is that during Ramadan everyone needs to be with their loved ones, their children, because that is the spirit of Ramadan.”

Convicted of a deadly bomb attack in 2002, Yacob is a native of Zamboanga Sibugay in Mindanao, the southern island that is home to most Filipinos who profess Islam in the predominantly Catholic country.

Many other Muslim inmates also come from the same region, which until 2014 was at the heart of a four-decades-long separatist struggle.

Zainal, a 48-year-old from Marawi, was imprisoned 20 years ago on murder charges.

He prays that one day he and other inmates will be given the chance to observe Ramadan again at home.

“That’s our top priority, to be with our family specially during this time,” he said.

“I hope we will be forgiven.”

The prison is maintained by the Bureau of Corrections under the Philippine Department of Justice.

The bureau’s director, Gregorio Catapang Jr., told Arab News it was part of its adherence to religious freedom to grant Muslim inmates exemptions during the fasting month. It means they are allowed to receive more food items from relatives, observe different schedules to consume meals, and more freedom of movement.

“The maximum compound is divided into four quadrants or sectors. And they are not allowed to move between sectors or quadrants for security sectors. But during Ramadan they are free to do so,” he said.

“I always tell them: Before anything else you have to find your God … Their religion will help them in their reformation.”

During Ramadan, access to the mosque is also granted outside the regular hours.

Datucan, who has been imprisoned on drugs-related charges, has been trying to keep himself focused on intense prayer and good deeds.

“We also avoid thinking or talking bad,” he said. “Ramadan is really the most sacred time for us.”

He remembers God and keeps thinking about all those who are dear to him.

“I want my family to be safe and far from harm,” he said.

“For all those who are imprisoned we have the same hope: to get out of this situation, to be free. I hope we will have a second chance, too. We will wait. It will come at the right time.”

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