By Timour Azhari and Maya Gebeily
BEIRUT (Reuters) -Lebanon woke up in two time zones on Sunday amid an escalating dispute between political and religious authorities over a decision to delay the clock change by a month.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati decided on Thursday not to start daylight savings time over the last weekend of March – as usually happens in Lebanon, Europe and other regions – but instead to roll clocks forward an hour on April 20.
Though no reason was given for the decision, it was widely seen as a concession to Muslims, allowing those observing the holy month of Ramadan to break their daylight-hours fasts at around 6 p.m. rather than 7 p.m.
But Lebanon’s influential Maronite church, the largest Christian church in the country, announced it would not abide by the decision, saying there had been no consultations or considerations of international standards.
It turned its clocks forward, and other Christian organisations, parties and schools announced similar plans. Lebanon’s education minister, Abbas Halabi, also said on Sunday schools would operate on daylight savings time – against the government decision.
Meanwhile, Muslim institutions and parties appeared set to remain in winter time, deepening divides in a country that was rocked by a 1975-90 civil war between Christian and Muslim factions and where parliament seats are allocated by religious sect.
Businesses and media organizations, including two of Lebanon’s main news channels – LBCI and MTV – announced they too would enter daylight savings time. “Lebanon is not an island,” LBCI said in a statement.
Others tried to adapt.
Lebanon’s national carrier Middle East Airlines said its clocks would stay in winter time but it would adjust its flight times to keep in line with international schedules.
The state-run telecoms duopoly sent messages to customers advising them to set the time on their devices manually, in case the clocks had automatically gone forward.
Many said the potential chaos was emblematic of decades of failed governance by leaders that led Lebanon into a 2019 financial crisis the World Bank said was “orchestrated” by elites.
“They create problems to deepen the division between Muslims and Christians … those in power are the ones benefiting from peoples’ disputes,” said Mohamed al-Arab, standing in the street with his friends in Tariq al-Jdideh, a dominantly Sunni Muslim area in Beirut.
‘MUSLIM OR CHRISTIAN TIME?’
Caretaker Prime Minister Mikati, a Sunni, announced the decision after a meeting with Shi’ite parliament speaker Nabih Berri, who repeatedly insisted on the change, according to a video of the meeting published by local broadcaster Al-Jadeed.
“Instead of it being 7 o’clock, let it stay 6 o’clock from now until the end of Ramadan,” Berri said in the clip.
During the meeting, Mikati was seen responding that the request was not possible because it would cause “problems”, including to flight scheduling.
But later that day, Mikati announced the decision to stay in winter time.
His office said on Saturday night the decision was a “purely administrative procedure” that was being given “an obnoxious sectarian turn”.
A spokesperson for the premier’s office said it did not have an immediate comment on the reasoning behind the decision or on the resulting backlash.
Caretaker justice minister Henry Khoury, a Christian, called on Mikati in a statement late on Saturday to reverse the move, in the first objection from within the cabinet.
Khoury said the decision “violated the principle of legitimacy” and had caused splits in Lebanese society and along religious lines at a time when Lebanon is already facing multiple crises.
At a Beirut cafe on Saturday evening, a Reuters journalist heard one customer ask: “Will you follow the Christian or Muslim clock starting tomorrow?”
Some Twitter users shared an old recording of famed Lebanese composer and musician Ziad Rahbani speaking about daylight savings.
“Each year, you put the clock forward an hour and you keep us back 10 years,” he says, addressing Lebanese politicians.
“You should pay attention to the years too, not just the hour.”
(Reporting by Timour Azhari and Maya Gebeily; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Elaine Hardcastle)