BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Churches in the capital filled with thousands of worshippers on Tuesday, with more than 5,000 people attending prayer services in Bandar Seri Begawan to mark the Christmas holiday.

In the days leading to Christmas, the Anglican and Catholic churches were buzzing with activity as celebrants gathered together to prepare for Christmas, which is observed as a public holiday in Brunei.

Christians make up roughly nine percent (37,000) of the country’s population, representing a diverse cross-section of society — from people of Chinese, Filipino and Indian descent, to members of the indigenous Murut, Bisaya and Dusun communities.

There are six registered Christian churches in Brunei — three Roman Catholic and three Anglican.

Despite the restrictions on public displays of Christmas decorations introduced in 2014, church leaders said Christians continue to celebrate Christmas in places of worship and private premises.

Reverend Johnny Chin of St Andrew’s Anglican Church said international media reports of a “Christmas ban” in Brunei have been exaggerated, failing to mention that celebrations continue within churches and among the different Christian communities.

“It was never a big issue,” he said. “Even though in the beginning we [church leaders] were not informed of the new regulations [back in 2014], but I guess it was because it was never meant to affect us specifically.”

Chin added that St Andrew’s Church has continued its Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services without any problems.

According to Brunei laws, the right of non-Muslims to practice their faith is guaranteed by the 1959 Constitution, but celebrations and prayers must be confined to places of worship and private residences.

In 2014, the Ministry of Religious Affairs asked business premises to remove Christmas decorations from public view in a bid to discourage Muslims from “imitating the customs and practices of other religions”, but said it did not ban Christians from celebrating in churches and within their community.

Bishop Cornelius Sim (C) greets congregants at Church of Our Lady of Assumption on Christmas Day 2018. Photo: The Scoop

Bishop Cornelius Sim, head of the Catholic church in Brunei, said the subdued celebrations help Christians understand the “true meaning of Christmas”.

“What is important is for the Christian community to ask ourselves what we have lost? We have lost nothing…[We have] gained more time to find the deeper purpose of the celebration,” he told The Scoop in an interview.

“When you think of the story of Christmas, it is about [the birth of a boy]. If we want to recapture the spirit of Christmas, we have to go back there — back to simplicity.”

However, both church leaders notice fewer congregants during the Christmas season, with many celebrants preferring to go abroad for a more festive atmosphere, compared to the quiet feel of the sultanate.

“A significant number of our church members are not here, they will be going to places like Miri and Kota Kinabalu,” said Reverend Chin.

Congregants at the Church of Our Lady of Assumption Catholic Church on Christmas Eve 2018. Photo: Wardi Wasil/The Scoop

Many church-goers said the limitations on public decorations diminished the festive feeling, but they still preferred to spend Christmas at home in Brunei.

“I personally don’t feel like it’s a ban, but more of limiting the season’s festive feel to just one day,” said Angie Ang, a legal executive.

“Previously, by early December there would already be Christmas songs played in supermarkets or malls as well as decorations.”

Apart from the lack of Christmas music and displays, Ang said she hasn’t experienced many changes in the way her family celebrates the holiday, adding that Christmas for her has always been about spending time with family and friends.

“We would watch Christmas movies, play board games, reflect on the highlights of the year and feel grateful for the people around us.”

Families taking pictures with Bishop Cornelius Sim on Christmas Day 2018 at the Church of Our Lady of Assumption in Bandar Seri Begawan. Photo: Wardi Wasil/The Scoop

Another church-goer, Charles Nick, echoed these sentiments, saying there hasn’t been noticeable differences to the way he celebrates the occasion at church and at home.

“I honestly think that some of the articles about the “ban” [have been taken out of context]. We are not being stopped from celebrating.”

Nick said the only changes have been the absence of decorations and music in shopping centres since 2014, which he says “diminishes” the festive atmosphere.

While there’s no denying that Christmas is more vibrant abroad, Nick said, he still prefers to celebrate Christmas at home instead of going overseas, because it is more meaningful when surrounded by family and friends.

“Celebrating Christmas in Brunei is still the best because it’s home,” he said.

“This includes celebrating mass together in Church at the stroke of midnight, singing Christmas carols, going to open houses and enjoying the day with your loved ones. That’s the Christmas spirit.”