The governments of three countries – Somalia, Tajikistan and Brunei – have banned Christmas celebrations this year, with punishments ranging up to a five-year jail term.
Somalia issued a ban on Christmas and New Year’s celebrations in the Muslim country on Wednesday, saying the festivities “have nothing to do with Islam”.
“We warn against celebration of Christmas, which is only for Christians,” Sheikh Mohamed Kheyrow, director of Somalia’s ministry of religion, said on state radio. “This is a matter of faith. The Christmas holiday and its drum beatings have nothing to do with Islam.” He said the ministry has sent letters to the police, national security intelligence and officials in the capital Mogadishu instructing them to “prevent Christmas celebrations”.
The announcement had echoes of Islamist militants al-Shabaab, which controlled the capital Mogadishu until 2011. Among their edicts was to ban Christmas celebrations.
It was not immediately clear what prompted the government announcement. Somalia is almost entirely Muslim, but it hosts thousands of African Union (AU) peacekeepers, including from the majority-Christian countries Burundi, Uganda and Kenya. The country, which is struggling to emerge from two decades of fighting and chaos, has also seen a growing number of Somalis returning from Europe and North America, sometimes bringing foreign traditions and attitudes with them.
Officials also said that Christmas celebrations may attract attacks from the Islamist militants al-Shabaab.
“Christmas will not be celebrated in Somalia for two reasons; all Somalis are Muslims and there is no Christian community here. The other reason is for security,” Abdifatah Halane, spokesman for Mogadishu mayor, told Reuters. “Christmas is for Christians. Not for Muslims.”
Last 25 December, al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for an attack on the main AU base in Mogadishu, which lasted several hours and left three peacekeepers and a civilian contractor dead.
The majority Muslim but nominally secular central Asian republic of Tajikistan has also issued its toughest-ever ban on seasonal celebrations, banning Christmas trees and gift-giving in schools.
The country has been kracking down on Christmas and New Year’s in recent years, and banned Father Frost – Russia’s equivalent of Santa Claus – from television screens in 2013. Halloween celebrations in the capital, Dushanbe, have also been targeted by police, with revellers dressed as zombies and vampires reportedly being detained in 2013 and 2014.
The oil-rich sultanate of Brunei, has also banned Christmas celebrations, under a shift towards hardline Islamic law. 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 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 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. “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.
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 – said.
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.”
However, the prohibition does not extend to the business interests of the sultan, whose estimated $20bn 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, include bowls overflowing with pine branches, ornaments and candles aplenty. The Le Meurice hotel in Paris advertises a Christmas eve seven-course gourmet menu for €650 – before drinks – while the Beverly Hills Hotel is also decked out for the holidays.
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 sharia law, punishable with death by stoning, sparked a backlash among A-listers including John Legend, Jay Leno, Ellen DeGeneres and Richard Branson, who called for the hotels to be boycotted.
The sultan is no stranger to controversy at home either – the monarchy was deeply embarrassed by a family feud with his brother Jefri Bolkiah over the latter’s alleged embezzlement of $15bn during his tenure as finance minister in the 1990s.
Court battles and investigations revealed salacious details of Jefri’s un-Islamic jetset lifestyle, including claims of a high-priced harem of foreign women and a luxury yacht he owned called “Tits”. Some say that Brunei is on a dangerous path towards religious intolerance in a state where only 9% of its 430,000 population are Christian.
“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,” a Catholic foreign worker in Brunei told AFP. “What’s happening here is that Christians are being alienated from the majority Muslim community.”
Nicky Woolf and agencies
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The world is going backwards...