Brunei's Christians have been quietly preparing for Christmas behind closed doors and in churches, as the government has banned open displays of Christmas trees and Santa Claus figures since last year, and disallows Muslims from joining in the celebrations.
Those who break the rules on these could 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.
For the oil-rich nation of 423,000 people, the shift from being a Muslim-majority country into the first in South-east Asia that follows strict Islamic law began last year. About 10 per cent of Bruneians are Christians.
NO TO MUSLIMS' CHRISTMAS GREETINGS
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.
USTAZ HAJI ANWARI HAJI RAWEE, a cleric from Brunei's Religious Affairs Ministry's propagation division
Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah started to implement hudud, or the Islamic penal code, from May 1 last year. The move led to criticism from human rights groups as hudud includes punishments such as whipping, stoning and amputation of limbs.
A Filipino worker in Brunei, who declined to be named, recalled that in previous years he could hear Christmas songs playing in the malls, but not this year.
"I wanted to buy Christmas cards but I could not find one here any more. I also have not seen Christmas trees for sale. My friends who have lived here longer bought their trees years ago so they will reuse those," he told The Straits Times.
Brunei imams earlier this month warned Muslims in a Friday sermon not to follow the customs of other religions.
"Using religious symbols like the cross, lighting candles, making Christmas trees and singing religious songs, sending Christmas greetings... are against the Islamic faith," said a Borneo Bulletin report on the sermon.
Officials like Ustaz Haji Anwari said the ban does not mean Muslims are hostile to people of other faiths, as the idea behind the restriction is not to prohibit others from practising their religion privately.
He added that the ban was also not particular to Christmas as the law applies to other festive celebrations such as Chinese New Year.
A spokesman for the Religious Affairs Ministry's public communications department said the ban was introduced last year and there has not been any new statement on this issue since.
While the directive issued by the ministry via local newspaper Brunei Times expressed the government's intention to control the act of celebrating Christmas "excessively and openly", Christians say this did not come as a shock as they were used to holding muted celebrations.
"It (the directive) has not made much difference in our worship at the church and private celebrations at home, it is already something that has been practised over the years," a Bruneian Christian told The Straits Times. Like several others contacted, he declined to be named.
The major difference, he said, was the noticeable lack of commercial Christmas decorations compared to previous years. "It does take away some of the atmosphere... but we Christians stay focused on the joy that comes from God rather than external factors."