The ban on Christmas: business as usual in Brunei

NEWS  | Kaley Payne

Wednesday 23 December 2015 

Christians in Brunei say Christmas celebrations are “as normal” for them, despite world media headlines suggesting the country has “banned Christmas”.

Imams in Brunei reiterated the country’s ban on Christmas celebrations for Muslims this month, warning that celebrations like Christmas, which are “not in any way related to Islam,” could lead to imitation and damage the faith of Muslims. Anyone found illegally celebrating Christmas in Brunei could face up to five years in prison, a $20,000 fine, or both.

The prohibition  – which suggests Christmas trees, Santa hats, lighting candles and Christmas songs are against the Islamic faith – was implemented in 2014, with Brunei’s Ministry of Religious Affairs releasing a statement that quoted the Prophet Muhammad as saying, “Whoever imitates a people is one of them.” The ban of publicly displayed festivities of religions other than Islam came after the country adopted stricter Sharia (Islamic law) penal codes, also in 2014.

But Christians in Brunei are still allowed to celebrate Christmas, according to the State Mufti’s Fatwa (decree): “Believers of other religions that live under the rule of an Islamic country according to Islam may practise their religion or celebrate their religious festivities among their community, with the condition that the celebrations are not publicised or displayed openly to Muslims.”

Eternity contacted a Christian man living in Brunei (Eternity believes he is in a good position to know what’s happening for Christians in the nation, but we can’t tell you why) who did not want to be named or identified further. He said that in his church – ban or no ban – there has been no change to how they celebrate Christmas.

“Celebrations here are going on like normal, within our premises and within our homes, as they always have been. There can be no public celebration – no outdoor Christmas trees, no public Christmas dinners. But we learn to live with this.

“This year, we have had carolling in our homes and the Anglican and Catholic churches have joined together for carols services, too. So, you could say from ‘ground zero’ there has been no change. Really, we’ve been a bit puzzled by the attention the ban has been given from international media. It’s always been this way. Christians are the minority. This is Brunei.”

In a statement, Open Doors Australia, which highlights the plight of persecuted Christians, says “this is just one example of how Christians face persecution at Christmas” and is encouraging Australian Christians to keep believers in Brunei in their prayers this holiday season.

Back in Brunei, Eternity’s Christian contact said he would not describe the ban on Christmas as “persecution” because it was a ban for Muslims, not for Christians. He preferred the label “restrictions”.

“We are allowed to have Christmas Eve services and Christmas Day services, just not in a public way. We haven’t been told to reduce what we’ve been doing [as Christians]. It’s difficult to share our faith outside our community, and of course we’d like a bit more liberty, but we also must accept that we are a very small minority in a Muslim country. They are the majority here.”

In Tajikstan, the education ministry has introduced restrictions on Christmas trees in schools and universities this year, after banning the Russian version of Father Christmas last year. The central-Asian nation is a secular state, but Sky News reports suggests the republic is “divided over its view on the benefits of Soviet (non-religious) versus Russian (Orthodox Christian) influences. Tajikstan’s leading Muslim cleric issued a similar warning to that in Brunei, urging Muslims not to take part in Christmas celebrations.

While in Somalia, the government has also re-emphasised its blanket Christmas ban, saying “all security forces are advised to halt or dissolve any gatherings. There should no activity at all.”

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