Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah

The Sultan of Brunei announced the first phase of sharia law during a speech in 2013.


There are no tinsel-laden trees or Santa hats this year in the oil-rich sultanate of Brunei, where Christmas celebrations have been banned under a recent 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 and severed limbs.

Religious leaders in the oil-rich sultanate warned this month that a ban on Christmas would be strictly enforced for fear 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 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 South-East 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.


Concern about alienation of other religions

“This will be the saddest Christmas ever for me,” a Malaysian expatriate resident said, requesting not to be named for fear of reprisals from authorities.

The ban is ridiculous. It projects this image that Islam does not respect the rights of other religions to celebrate their faith.

A Muslim Bruneian mother, name withheld

“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.”

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,” said one Filipino waitress, one of Brunei’s many guest workers.

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.

“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.”

Others were more tempered, and urged the prohibition to be respected.

“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.”

Dorchester Hotel's Christmas decorationsPHOTO: Christmas decorations are displayed at the Dorchester hotel in London, despite its owner, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, banning Christmas in Brunei.

Overseas interests excluded from prohibitions

The prohibition does not extend to the business interests of the sultan, whose estimated $27.6 billion fortune includes the historic Beverly Hills Hotel, part of his Dorchester Collection with branches in London, Paris, Milan and Rome.

It is Christmas as usual this year in the upscale Le Richemond hotel in Geneva where guests are greeted by lavish displays in the hotel lobby, including bowls overflowing with pine branches, ornaments and candles aplenty.

The Le Meurice hotel in Paris advertises a Christmas eve seven-course gourmet menu for nearly $1,000, before drinks, while the Beverly Hills Hotel is decked-out for the holidays too.

Jay Leno speaks at a rally of women's groups and homosexual rights groups protesting outside the Beverly Hills Hotel.PHOTO: Jay Leno speaks at a rally of women’s groups and homosexual rights groups protesting outside the Beverly Hills Hotel. (AFP)

Before unveiling the hardline law, the sultan had warned of pernicious foreign influences such as the internet and indicated he intended to place more emphasis on Islam in the conservative Muslim country.

Strict rules against homosexuality in the sharia law, punishable with death by stoning, sparked abacklash among A-listers including Jay Leno, Ellen DeGeneres and business tycoon Richard Branson, who called for the hotels to be boycotted.

Last year, the Australian Football League called off a sponsorship deal between its affiliated league in Europe and Brunei’s state airline.

“These laws are counter to everything the AFL stands for in regards to inclusion and diversity,” an AFL statement said.

“In a globalised world, many countries are trying to unite different people and different religions, but it doesn’t seem to be the case here,” said a Catholic foreign worker.

“What’s happening here is that Christians are being alienated from the majority Muslim community.”

[Source:- REAUTERS]


By Adam