Christmas may be spreading the cheer world over but in the tiny nation of Brunei in Borneo, mere mention of the festivities could land one in serious trouble.
The Sultan of Brunei has banned public celebrations of Christmas, including sending festive greetings and wearing Santa hats, in a move aimed at prohibiting propagation of any other religion other than Islam.
In the oil-rich south east Asian nation, Muslims seen celebrating Christmas and those of any denomination found organising public celebrations could face up to five years jail.
The country’s non-Muslims, who comprise 32% of the 420,000 population, will however be allowed to celebrate the festival in their own communities as long as it is closed off to Muslims.
Imams have also directed communities to follow a government edict passed last year that bans celebrations that could lead Muslims astray and damage their faith.
“These enforcement measures are… intended to control the act of celebrating Christmas excessively and openly, which could damage the aqidah (beliefs) of the Muslim community,” the Ministry of Religious Affairs said in a statement explaining the edict that was published in the Brunei Times.
The statement said non-Muslims disclosing or displaying Christmas celebrations violated the penal code which prohibits propagating religions other than Islam to a Muslim.
Violations include lighting candles, putting up Christmas trees, singing religious songs, sending Christmas greetings and putting up decorations, the Borneo Bulletin quoted imams as saying at a Friday sermon.
“But as Muslims … we must keep it (following other religions’ celebrations) away as it could affect our Islamic faith,” they said.
Before Christmas last year, officials of the Ministry of Religious Affairs visited businesses and asked owners to remove Christmas decorations and to direct staff to not sport any Christmas-themed outfits like Santa Claus hats and clothes.
Brunei’s rulers do not enforce the harsh Islamic orthodoxies of countries like Saudi Arabia.
There are no sanctions for women who do not wear headscarfs and while the sale and public consumption of alcohol is banned, foreigners are allowed to import and drink it behind closed doors.
But Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, one of the world’s richest men, last year ordered the introduction of sharia, the strict legal code based on the injunctions of the Koran, prompting boycotts and protests at hotels he owns in the United Kingdom and the United States, including the Beverly Hills Hotel.
The laws, which include amputation of hands and feet for theft and whipping for adultery, were to be phased in over three years.
But their introduction appears to have been delayed without public explanation, according to foreign observers in Brunei.
The ban has encountered some resistance - the social media campaign #MyTreedom, which encourages Christians and other in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran other countries where the faith is persecuted to post images of themselves celebrating Christmas, includes several contributions from Brunei residents.