For the apostolic vicar to Brunei, Christmas celebrations went well despite the ban
Bandar Seri Begawan (AsiaNews/CBCP) – Bishop Cornelius Sim, Apostolic Vicar to Brunei Darussalam, reacted to the recent ban on Christmas celebrations imposed by the sultan who rules the sharia-governed state, noting that "Catholics in this country have always been able to practice their faith publicly as a worshipping community and look forward to continuing to do so in the time to come."
Under the ban, celebrating the Christian festivity in the streets or in public places can entail a five-year prison term or a US$ 20,000 fine. However, for the prelate, the situation is not as bad as it has been made out by Western media since it is aimed primarily at Muslims.
"We have been informed that these [new rules] are directed primarily towards Muslims themselves,” the prelate said.
“You may also have read the justification that the Ministry of Religious Affairs gave for the restrictions, i.e. to protect Muslims from being led astray in their faith,” he added.
“I presume those who issued the instructions have thought long and hard on this point even if I am not privy to their train of thought as such”.
Despite the ban, Christians can still celebrate Christmas, but only "in private" after notifying the authorities in advance.
“Offensive” practices associated with the Christian feast day include wearing religious symbols, lighting candles, putting up Christmas trees, setting up decorations, wearing Santa hats, singing religious hymns and send greetings.
For Mgr Sim, Brunei’s constitution guarantees religious tolerance. What is more, “As a religious professional myself, I do sympathise with those who are trying to deal with issues that confuse members of their religion and hence lead them to compromise their religious faith and practice”.
“To be honest, I am not sure the absence of ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Frosty the Snowman’ in malls adversely impacts the thinking Christian’s observance of this special period. ‘Santa Claus’ as portrayed in popular culture is hardly an adequate let alone appropriate representation of what Christmas is about,” he explained.
The prelate said that Christians in Brunei have not really seen any appreciable difference in how they celebrated the season as compared to previous years. In fact, parishes in the country continued the observance of Dawn Masses (Misa de Gallo).
In Bandar Seri Begawan, local Catholics held the final Dawn Mass on 24 December as required by the Religious Affairs Ministry in order to facilitate movement of people through the streets during the annual procession marking the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday.
In many other parishes, Mass was celebrated on 25 December. “Because Christmas Day is a public holiday in Brunei, these services were well attended. It was heartening to see our Catholics come to celebrate the birth of Jesus in a simple but joyous way,” Mgr Sim said.
Local parishes also opened up their facilities on Christmas night to host the annual Christmas party for migrant workers, many of whom are from the Philippines.
“In Bandar Seri Begawan, more than 1,500 overseas workers and their dependents attended the event. They were able to choose from a variety of Indian, Chinese, and Filipino foods. Dances and songs as well as prizes for lucky draws were the highlight of the night,” the apostolic vicar noted.