THERE is to be no Christmas cheer in the oil-rich sultanate of Brunei this year. Religious authorities in the nation that introduced strict sharia law last year, have put a ban on any open Christmas displays or celebrations and banned Muslims from taking part so they would not be led astray.
The open display of Christmas trees, Santa Claus or religious figures, the playing of Christmas carols or even sending of Christmas greetings is punishable under new laws and offenders can be fined 20,000 Brunei dollars or serve a jail term of up to five years, according to provisions in its Syariah Penal Code Order 2013 law.
Ustaz Haji Anwari Haji Rawee, a cleric from Brunei’s Religious Affairs Ministry’s propagation division, said the ban was introduced to prevent deviation from the Islamic faith.
“If Muslims offer wishes of Merry Christmas, it means they give recognition to that religion and consider it to be acceptable by Allah. But that cannot be, as our religion says there is only one God, not many Gods,” he told The Straits Times yesterday.
The decision by the Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah to implement the Islamic penal code last year that will include punishments such as whipping, stoning and amputation, has been widely criticised by human rights groups.
Both Muslim and Christian residents of Brunei have also expressed their sadness at the Christmas ban.
“The ban is ridiculous. It projects this image that Islam does not respect the rights of other religions to celebrate their faith,” said a Muslim mother in the capital, also too scared to provide her name.
“Islam teaches us to respect one another and I believe it starts with respecting other religions, even if what is being banned are ornamental displays.”
However while some Christians said it would be a sad day for them and they would “feel deprived”, others said they were used to holding muted celebrations and the directive had not been much of a shock.
“It is an Islamic country and so with respect to the law, churches need to keep decorations indoors,” said a Christian Bruneian, unfazed by the strict rules.
“The meaning of Christmas for us isn’t all about Christmas decorations.”
Filipino Christians in Brunei reported that it was no longer possible to find Christmas trees or cards for sale, and they would have to reuse them from previous years.
Brunei became the first country in South-east Asia to follow strict Islamic law. About 10 per cent of Bruneians are Christians.