Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Lent in the MENA, a Season of Varied Rituals and Penance

Explore the traditions of Lent in the MENA and learn about the dietary restrictions, typical dishes, and daily prayers observed during this season.

Lent in the MENA
Coptic Orthodox Christians observe Good Friday prayers at the Saint Simon Monastery, also known as the Cave Church, in the Mokattam mountain of Egypt’s capital Cairo on April 22, 2022. Khaled DESOUKI / AFP

Dana Hourany

For Christians in the Middle East, the start of Lent marks the commencement of a special period leading up to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. According to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days, and the devil tried to tempt him during that time. And it is because of this that Christians also observe Lent for 40 days.

The term lent is an old English word that means to “lengthen.” The start of Lent coincides with longer daytime hours as the summer solstice draws near. The gradual change from winter to spring and from spring to summer is mirrored in the renewal of one’s faith and spiritual purification.

Christians view Easter as a time of joy brought on by Jesus’s resurrection, but this observance must come after a period of atonement, reflection, and renunciation. Depending on local traditions, Lent may begin on Ash Monday (February 20) or Ash Wednesday (February 22).

The Middle East, the birthplace of all Abrahamic faiths, remains central for many Christians. Despite their decreasing numbers, religious rituals continue to be practiced and passed down centuries later. Different denominations of Christianity practice unique traditions that experts believe may erode as younger generations become increasingly irreligious.

Why is Lent important?

For forty days and nights, Jesus abstained from food and drink according to the gospels. Jesus led his followers to rid themselves of the darkness of temptation, enabling them to participate in divine communion with a pure heart and soul.

Offering up something enjoyed during Lent, whether it’s a food item or pastime, is often part of the practice.

To honor the tradition, individuals who are mindful of their negative habits might consider refraining from indulgences such as sugary snacks, meat-based dishes, and addictions such as social media or smoking.

Moreover, worshippers are asked to demonstrate good-natured behavior, including kindness, consideration, and charity.

Among the key days of this season are Ash Wednesday and Ash Monday, when many Christians mark their foreheads with a cross to symbolize mortality. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” is often repeated to worshippers as they receive their crosses.

On Palm Sunday, Christians celebrate Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem.

On Maundy Thursday, Christians around the world reflect upon the final evening before Good Friday. This day during Holy Week commemorates the Washing of the Feet and the Last Supper of Jesus Christ with the Apostles, as described in the canonical gospels. Good Friday follows as the day commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus and his death at Calvary.

Easter Sunday then follows to commemorate Jesus Christ’s victory over death through the miracle of resurrection.

Throughout this season, individuals are encouraged to give greater devotion to their beliefs through increased prayer and participation in religious services.

Lent in the MENA

In accordance with Christian tradition, Easter and Christmas are observed on different days by Western Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. For Protestants and Catholics alike, Lenten season begins according to Western traditions on February 22 and ends on April 8.

The Greek Orthodox Church, on the other hand, observes Lent from Ash Monday on February 27 through Holy Saturday evening, leading up to Easter Sunday on April 15.

Even though various churches and denominations have different Lenten customs, sacrifice and introspection are central to almost all of them.

For followers of the Eastern Church, such as the Greek Orthodox and Eastern Catholics, adhering to a vegan or vegetarian diet is customary, and foregoing breakfast is commonplace.

Members outside of the Eastern Church, on the other hand, may choose what to abstain from in order to show penance; either food or habits. Meat abstinence remains a requirement on Fridays during Lent by Western traditions.

For the Maronite Church, a prominent Eastern-rite church in the Levant that is in canonical union with the Roman Catholic Church, Good Friday is observed with a special church service to commemorate the death of Jesus Christ. As part of their wider tradition, a procession comprised of believers carrying a cross proceeds through various villages and towns. This tradition is still very much practiced in Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and other parts of the region.

In the Maronite Church, abstinence from food and drink (except for water and medication) is mandatory from midnight until noon each day. Though restrictions are laxer, meat consumption is not permitted on both Ash Monday and Good Friday.

In Lebanon

During the season of Lent, churches often increase the frequency of their services, Rima Nasrallah, a Professor of Liturgy at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut told Fanack. Fridays are dedicated to prayers that center on reflecting on Jesus’s crucifixion, while wedding celebrations are put off until after Easter.

For Armenian Christians, fish is totally eliminated from the diet, she says, while Greek Orthodox Christians consume fish only on the Feast of the Annunciation on Saturday, March 25. As for Protestants, they are free to fast in the way that suits them best.

“Under the Protestant faith, abstaining from a negative habit can strengthen one’s spirituality without the need of dietary restrictions,” she said. “Worshippers are encouraged to strengthen their spiritual faith by reading the Bible, abstaining from social media and eliminating habits that distract from religion.”

Among the typical dishes during this season are mujaddara, cooked lentils with rice and fried onions; hendbe m’aleyyeh, a leafy green dish that is made from wild dandelions; man’ouchet zaatar, a flatbread with thyme; and sfouf (turmeric cake) for dessert.

She adds that in the final week before Easter, churches hold daily prayers as Christians are urged to fast this week if they have not done so previously.

Known as Passion Week, the final days of Lent are revered as a celebration of Jesus’s willingness to sacrifice himself for the sins of humanity.

“This week marks the commemoration of all the steps Christ took before his crucifixion,” she said. “Key events that took place during this week, such as the Last Supper and the washing of the disciples’ feet, are re-enacted in various churches.”

Between the old and the new

Despite Lebanon’s reported decline in personal piety among individuals over the past decade by 43%, Nasrallah notes that much of the Christian youth still value preserving faith and traditions, sometimes more so than their parents’ generation did.

She cites the example of the new generation relating to veganism and its significance ecologically as well as its relationship to minimalism, a style of living that has become popular among eco-conscious youths.

“Some rituals will adapt and become more contemporary, while others might disappear,” she said.

In regard to the changes that have taken place over the years, Nasrallah describes how communal life was more prominent in villages prior to mass migration to the cities at the turn of the 19th century.

She notes that Lent was characterized by a greater sense of religious ties, with people attending church together and participating in communal meals. Among the traditions that she believes have disappeared is Lazarus Saturday, just before Palm Sunday, when kids would reenact the resurrection of Lazarus by visiting different houses and receiving treats in return.

Of the more eccentric rituals that have been passed down from generation to generation is the “Zambo” carnival. Usually held in Tripoli before the Greek Orthodox Lent, people paint their bodies, wear bizarre costumes and hats, roam the streets, and chant “Zambo! Zambo!” To this day, the festival’s origins and reasons remain unknown.

Levantine religious customs are shared across Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine. However, the socio-political unrest in war-torn Syria has created dire economic conditions, also impacting the church, and Syrian Christians.

Christians in Aleppo gathered for Ash Wednesday services amid widespread devastation and suffering, ushering in a time of fasting and prayer. Refugees and displaced persons seeking refuge in Aleppo’s St. Francis Parish prayed the Stations of the Cross on the first Friday of Lent, the Christian Media Center reported.

In Palestine

Greek Orthodox Christianity is practiced by the vast bulk of Christians in Palestine. There are also other groups like Lutherans, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics.

Mathios Al-Qassis, a social observer from Bet Jala, a town close to the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem, told Fanack that the key differences between Palestinian villages and large cities in the observance of Lent is communal life.

“Villagers still dine with the congregation after attending mass in the afternoon,” he told Fanack.

Bethlehem and the neighboring towns of Bet Jala and Bet Sahoor, he says, still have a strong communal spirit.

On Good Friday, the burial of Jesus is re-enacted in what became known as the “funeral procession,” involving a ceremony with multiple components. These include prayers, readings from the gospels and hymns sung by the congregation. Later, churchgoers form a circuit around their place of worship and carry a shrine symbolizing Jesus’s casket, accompanied by a choir and a marching band consisting of members of local scout troops.

Another key ritual according to Al-Qassis is the Way of Sorrows, also known as Via Dolorosa, which involves visiting 14 Stations of the Cross.

“Even though Greek Orthodox fasting allows us to consume food in the afternoon, some people must wake up at 4 or 5 in the morning and travel long distances for work,” Al-Qassis noted. “They might end up being stopped at Israeli checkpoints for hours at a time, so they are excused from the fast,” Qassis said.

Reaching Jerusalem at the time of Easter is a challenge for Palestinian Christians. To be granted access to the city and pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, permits must be issued by Israel, which are usually only granted to a few.

“Believers still go there despite permit issues, even if they do not make it into the church, it remains an important part of Easter celebration,” Al-Qassis said.

In Egypt

For Coptic Christians, Lenten fasting is a lengthy affair. Lasting 55 days each year, this period of abstaining from meat and dairy products is a widely observed practice within the Coptic Church. The Coptic calendar also designates about 210 days of such fasting throughout the entire annual cycle.

According to Coptic scholar Marko Elameen, the Coptic Church holds daily services as people fast until 3 p.m. Originally, the Coptic fast was broken at sunset without excluding any food groups, he noted.

“The Coptic Church, however, developed two types of fasts for its followers in response to the demands of daily modern life and long working hours,” he told Fanack. “The most stringent is the first, which adheres to a vegan diet with no sugar allowed and even forbids intimate relationships between married couples.”

The second type, he adds, is more relaxed since fish and sugar are allowed.

“Since people feel closer to church during this season, they attend in great numbers,” he said. “The church offers more services during this time through increased prayer gatherings and its repeated emphasis on forgiveness and repentance through its hymns and chants.”

He notes that during the last week of Lent, church services are offered in both the morning and evening.

Among the popular foods eaten in the Coptic community are lentil dishes, which Elameen says were traditionally prepared for Lentil Thursday also known as Maundy Thursday. During Good Friday, Copts fast from 12 a.m. until 7 p.m. A popular dish served on the day is bean sprout soup.

The scholar points out that in addition to engaging in religious competitions, activities, and festivals, children are also taught in Sunday school. Thus, Coptic customs, such as the practice of Lent, are preserved and transmitted over time.

In Morocco

Two-thirds of Moroccan Christians are Catholic, while the rest are Protestant.

Moroccan activist Rachid Imounan says Protestants observe fast only as a spiritual season without performing any physical rituals.

“For us Protestants, fasting is a means of getting closer to God and does not require any display of action which include restrictions on food,” he told Fanack.

To achieve union with God, Imounan adds, each person may need to go through their own personal spiritual battle that requires a unique sacrifice that can be alcohol, sweets, gossip, anger, etc.

Unlike other Christian denominations, Moroccan Protestants observe no rituals or changes to their church ceremonies, he noted.

“I do worry however for the future of our religion as the younger generations seem increasingly disinterested in religious practices,” the activist said. “In times like these, when the world is unsteady and rife with crises, we need to slow down and find comfort in God.”