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The country where publicly wearing a Santa hat could land you in jail

Hassanal Bolkiah, the sultan of Brunei, with his son, new daughter-in-law and wife during the young couple's wedding ceremony in Brunei in April. (Information Department of Brunei/EPA)
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As much of the world gears up for Christmas, there's one country where citizens could risk time in prison if they are caught celebrating: the tiny, oil-rich sultanate of Brunei.

The country, an enclave on the southeast Asian island of Borneo surrounded by Malaysia, is estimated to have a population of just under 430,000, and about 78 percent of it is Muslim. Late last year, Brunei's Ministry of Religious Affairs announced that Muslims are prohibited from joining the traditional Christian celebration and that wearing "hats or clothes that resemble Santa Claus" would be considered a criminal offense.

Brunei's sharia-based penal code, first implemented in 2013, suggests that any Muslim who follows non-Islamic practices could face a fine as high as about $15,000 and up to five years in prison as punishment.

Although Christians are not prohibited from privately celebrating, they are warned that their Christmas activities should not be "disclosed or displayed publicly to Muslims." More than 8 percent of the country is said to be Christian, and the website of the Brunei prime minister notes the "joyous and colourful celebration enjoyed by Christians throughout the country."

According to news reports, the ban remains in place this year, as well. The Borneo Bulletin, a local independent newspaper, reports that a number of imams warned Muslims earlier this month of the problems they would face if they celebrated Christmas.

“During Christmas celebrations, Muslims following that religion’s acts — such as using their religious symbols like the cross, lighting candles, making Christmas trees and singing religious songs, sending Christmas greetings, using signs praising the religion, putting up decorations or creating sounds and doing anything that amounts to respecting their religion — are against the Islamic faith,” the imams were quoted as saying during Friday prayers.

While the Christian tradition of Christmas is generally not celebrated in the Muslim world, it is accepted to varying degrees in different nations — the United Arab Emirates has largely embraced it as a non-religious event, while conservative Saudi Arabia requires that all Christian celebrations remain private.

Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has ruled Brunei as an absolute monarch since 1967. Bolstered by exports of crude oil and natural gas, he leads a lavish life: His personal fortune is estimated at about $20 billion, and the 1,800-room palace he calls home, the Istana Nurul Iman, is said to be the world’s largest residence of a head of state. However, the sultan has faced international criticism for his decision to implement a harsh version of Islamic law that would allow for stonings and amputations. A number of celebrities, including Jay Leno and Ellen DeGeneres, have boycotted a hotel chain owned by the sultan in protest.

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