KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - Oil-rich Brunei has banned public celebrations of Christmas for fear of Muslims being led astray, its religious affairs ministry said on Thursday, in a country that last year controversially instituted tough Islamic syariah penalties.
The ban, instituted after Christmas last month when local children and adults were seen wearing clothes "that resemble Santa Claus", raises fresh concerns of religious restrictions after last April's announcement of the introduction of a penal code that will eventually include penalties such as the severing of limbs and death by stoning.
A spokesman declined to comment directly on the ban, but referred to a Dec 27 statement in which the ministry said the act of publicly marking non-Islamic rituals or festivities "can be seen as propagations of religions other than Islam".
It noted in particular: "For example, in conjunction with Christmas celebrations, Muslim children, teenagers and adults can be seen wearing hats or clothes that resemble Santa Claus.
"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 disclosed or displayed publicly to Muslims," the statement said.
"Muslims should be careful not to follow celebrations such as these that are not in any way related to Islam... and could unknowingly damage the faith of Muslims."
The statement also said that businesses that publicly displayed Christmas decorations were asked to take them down and had given their "full cooperation".
The latest move comes after Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah announced in April that he would push ahead with the introduction of a new criminal code which sparked rare domestic criticism of the fabulously wealthy ruler as well as international condemnation.