The 25th of December for most Christians is a significant date as it celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. In countries such as Singapore, you would not be blamed for thinking that Christmas has come early as decorations appear on the streets a month (or even more) in advance. Unfortunately, Christians in other countries may not enjoy the same level of openness with regard to their festivities, especially in a country ruled under an official religion that is not Christianity. What would the state’s position be on a religion or religious festivity that runs counter to their own institutionalized religion? What would the position of an Islamic government, which may already have a negative perception of fellow Muslims deemed to be deviant, be towards Christians and their festivities?
It is ironic to note that some Muslims are not welcome by fellow Muslims in countries ruled under Islamic law. We see this in Malaysia where Shia Muslims are somehow required to convert to Islam if they wish to marry a Sunni Muslim. They are also believed to have a separate Quran, the holy scripture for Muslims. A more comprehensive analysis of how Islamic countries treat its citizens, however, would be to look at how non-Muslims are treated in that country. I have chosen the two countries of Iran and Brunei vis-à-vis their attitudes towards Christians and Christmas as these two case studies provide such a stark contrast. I had the privilege of interviewing the Archbishop Sebouh Sarkissian of St. Sarkis Cathedral, a well known Armenian Church in Tehran, Iran. As will be seen, the religious atmosphere in Iran and Brunei could not be any more different.
The Armenian Christians today are Iran’s largest religious minority, numbering between 70,000 and 200,000. There are about 200 Armenian churches in Iran today. According to Mr Sarkissian, the rights of religious minorities in Iran to worship are constitutionally protected and guaranteed. Armenian Christians are allowed to conduct their own church services without interference from the state. Members of other faiths, such as Islam, are welcome to observe the mass service and the subsequent programme. In fact, I was invited to sit in for a discussion that was taking place within the Armenian congregation before I eventually met the Archbishop. A few of the members stared at me, perhaps thinking I was Armenian. The level of social participation among Armenian Christians is also high in that they are able to attend schools without fear of being discriminated against.
Mr Sarkissian noted that the security of Armenian Christians in predominantly Muslim Iran is not a new phenomenon. Armenian Christians’ relations with the Iranian government go back as far as the 17th century when Shah Abbas, the Islamic emperor of the Safavid Dynasty, relocated 500,000 Armenians from Armenian lands to the Iranian city of Isfahan to escape persecution from the Ottomans. In a similar vein, it would only be three centuries later that Armenians would seek refuge in Iran during the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Ottomans in 1915.
Mr Sarkissian went on to emphasize the importance of religious harmony to Armenian Christians when he recalled a Christian-Muslim seminar he had attended. The seminar talked about the role of rationality in combating violence committed in the name of religion. In the midst of religious fundamentalism, this seminar was much needed. However, religious harmony is not just practiced among the religious elites; it can also be observed along the streets of Tehran during Christmas. Various retail outlets are palpable for their Christmas decorations on their windows. In the same vicinity, it is not uncommon to see infrastructure draped with tributes to the martyrs of the 1979 Islamic revolution and even quotes by Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the revolution. Religious harmony in this sense is captured in Tehran’s urban landscape.
A different religious atmosphere emanates from Brunei. It has been almost two years since the Sultan of Brunei declared that Christmas celebrations would be virtually disallowed. Christians are banned from celebrating Christmas in public, which means that Santa hats and banners with Christmas greetings are prohibited from being displayed. Individuals face a fine of $20,000 or a jail term of up to 5 years if they are caught celebrating Christmas illegally. This means that Christians have to celebrate Christmas in private, and this after notifying the authorities. The Sultan’s rationale for banning outward celebrations is that it might lead to Muslims leaving Islam. Being exposed to a Christmas tree will make a Muslim convert to Christianity it seems.
In fact, Bruneian Imams have supported the ban, warning that Muslims who are involved in the celebrations such as wishing a Christian ‘Merry Christmas’, are imitating the faith itself. If Christian and even Muslim shopkeepers in Iran proudly display Christmas decorations, the law against displaying such decorations in Brunei is actively enforced whereby religious officials petrol local businesses to make sure they are ‘Christmas free’. Christmas is likened to a goddess that will lure vulnerable Muslims into Christianity. Christmas is virtually demonised in Brunei while its believers are seen as potential enemies of Islam. Perhaps Brunei could look to Iran as a role model for how Muslims treat non-Muslims. The opposition between religions in terms of their theological beliefs should not have to be extended into divisions between the ‘believer’ and the ‘deviant’.
In the spirit of Christmas, and against the spirit of Brunei’s draconian laws, I wish all Christians, especially in Brunei, ‘A Very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year’.