Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has declared a ban on public celebration of Christmas in the tiny oil-rich state, saying that residents face jail if caught celebrating the Christian festival. The punishment for celebrating Christmas publicly in Brunei is now a fine of $20,000, or up to five years in prison, or both.
Sultan Bolkiah, once of the richest men in the world, has ruled Brunei for nearly five decades. He first introduced the ban on Christmas in April 2014, after announcing “phase one” of implementation of stricter Sharia penal code that allows jail terms and fines for a range of offenses, including celebrating Christmas.
“Today I place my faith in and am grateful to Allah the almighty to announce that tomorrow, Thursday, May 1 2014, will see the enforcement of Sharia law phase one, to be followed by the other phases,” the 68-year-old sultan said at the time.
“By the grace of Allah, with the coming into effect of this legislation, our duty to Allah is therefore being fulfilled,” he added.
Under the second phase of implementation of stricter Sharia law, punishment for offenses, such as stealing and alcohol consumption, will include amputation and whipping, respectively. And under the third and final phase of implementation, punishments will include stoning to death for offenses such as adultery, sodomy, and insulting the holy prophet Muhammad.
Enforcement of Islamic Sharia has been relatively relaxed in Brunei compared with Saudi Arabia. However, it is feared that the “phased” implementation of stricter Sharia code could change the situation drastically.
While the new law bans Muslims from celebrating Christmas publicly and privately, it allows Christians to celebrate only privately. Christians are also allowed to celebrate Christmas in their communities, but they are required to inform the authorities before celebrating and they must not “disclose” or “display” their celebrations to Muslims.
Christians who celebrate “openly” or “excessively” risk a fine and five years in prison.
According to the Borneo Bulletin, local Islamic leaders have supported the ban, saying it was introduced out of concern that “excessive and open” celebration of Christmas could lead the Muslim population astray and damage their faith.
“Some may think that it is a frivolous matter and should not be brought up as an issue,” local Muslim leaders (Imams) said, according to the Borneo Bulletin. “But as Muslims… we must keep it [Christianity and other religions] away as it could affect our Islamic faith.”
About sixty-five percent of the 420,000 residents of Brunei — a small oil-rich nation on the island of Borneo — are Muslims. About 32 percent are non-Muslim. Non-Muslims include a substantial Christian population, and adherents of other faiths such as Buddhism. Foreigners living in Brunei include migrant workers from the West, Roman Catholic Filipino workers, and ethnic Chinese citizens.
Under the anti-Christmas law, all public celebrations of the Christian festival, such as putting up Christmas trees and decorations, singing Christmas carols, wearing Santa hats and costumes, and sending Christmas greetings are in violation of Islamic law and thus could attract severe punishment.
The provisions of the law allowing Christians to celebrate privately are very restrictive and of uncertain interpretation and thus could be used to snare Christians.
The official statement banning public Christmas celebrations warned non-Muslims that “disclosing” or “displaying” Christmas celebrations violates the country’s Sharia penal code under which the propagation of any religious other than Islam is illegal.
Muslims and Christians face a prison sentence if found organizing Christmas celebrations, and Christians face a prison sentence if found “openly” or “excessively” celebrating Christmas.
“These enforcement measures are… intended to control the act of celebrating Christmas excessively and openly, which could damage the aqidah (beliefs) of the Muslim community,” the Ministry of Religious Affairs said in a statement published in the Brunei Times.
To ensure that Christians do not celebrate Christmas “openly” or “excessively,” officials from the Ministry of Religious Affairs have gone out to inspect buildings and local businesses. The officials prevent display of Christmas decorations and stop people wearing Santa hats and costumes.
However, some non-Muslim residents are resisting the ban through a social media campaign, #MyTreedom, which calls on Christians within and outside Brunei, including Christians in other conservative Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia, to post images of themselves celebrating Christmas.
Critics of the sultan have pointed out that, despite banning Christmas in Brunei, he allows celebration of the festival in his hotels in the U.K. and the U.S.
Sultan Bolkiah owns the Dorchester hotel chain, which includes Beverly Hills Hotel and Hotel Bel Air in the U.S. This year, his hotels in the U.K. and the U.S. have been decorated elaborately for Christmas celebrations.
The move to impose stricter Sharia code in his country prompted protests and boycotts of his hotels by A-list celebrities. Critics have also accused the sultan of hypocrisy, noting that while he imposes strict Islamic laws on citizens and residents, members of his family, including his brother, live permissive lifestyles.
The sultan’s brother, Jefri, has gained notoriety as a playboy and allegedly keeps a large harem and owns a fleet of luxury yachts, one of which is called “T*ts.” As finance minister, he was accused of misappropriating billions of dollars.
The sultan himself lives opulently in a massive 1,700-room palace, the Istana Nurul Iman.
The United Nations Commission on Human Rights has criticized Brunei’s implementation of strict Sharia law.
[Photo by Vincent Thian/AP]