Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, Dec 23 – Christmas is just around the corner, but there are no tinsel-laden trees or Santa hats in the oil-rich sultanate of Brunei, where celebrations have been banned under a shift towards hardline Islamic law.
The all-powerful Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, one of the world’s richest men, announced last year he would push ahead with the introduction of sharia law, eventually including tough penalties such as death by stoning or severed limbs.
Religious leaders in the oil-rich sultanate warned this month that a ban on Christmas would be strictly enforced; for fear that Muslims could be led astray.
“Using religious symbols like crosses, lighting candles, putting up Christmas trees, singing religious songs, sending Christmas greetings… are against Islamic faith,” imams said in sermons published in the local press.
Punishment for violating the ban is a five-year jail sentence, and the government warned last year that Muslims would be committing an offence if they so much as wore “hats or clothes that resemble Santa Claus”.
Although Christians are free to celebrate, they have been told not to do so “excessively and openly”, in a directive that has had a chilling effect on the Southeast Asian nation, which sits on a corner of Borneo island.
Businesses have been warned to take decorations down and authorities have stepped up spot checks across the capital. Hotels popular among Western tourists that once boasted dazzling lights and giant Christmas trees are now barren of festive decor.
“This will be the saddest Christmas ever for me,” a Malaysian expatriate resident told AFP, requesting not to be named for fear of reprisals from authorities.
“The best part of Christmas day is waking up and having that feeling that it is Christmas, but there’s just none of that here and you just feel deprived.”
“All this is just because of what the Sultan wants. In 2013, I saw many Muslims together with Christians having a good time at their house parties. Everything was normal and good,” he said.
– #MyTreedom –
Most people are too scared to speak up about the ban, and while some privately gripe about the rule they know there is little to be done.
“I will be working on Christmas after church. We just have to cope,” a Filipino waitress — one of Brunei’s many guest workers — told AFP.
Some people dared to post pictures on social media depicting Christmas cheer using the hashtag #MyTreedom, part of a global campaign to highlight oppression against Christians.
At least one church in the capital sported decorations that were visible from the street, a rare glimpse of holiday cheer in the otherwise decoration-free city.