Celebrating signs of an illegal holiday in Saudi Arabia
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- It's beginning to look a little bit like Christmas in Saudi Arabia, where Islam is the only accepted religion and non-Muslim religious activities are banned in public.
Turkeys lie in deep freezers under shelves loaded with pumpkin pie spices, cranberry sauce, stuffing mix and tinned sweet potatoes. Yule log-shaped cakes sit in patisserie cases; a couple of bare, plastic Christmas trees stand in a boutique window; and gift wraps and glittering red, green, silver and gold candles appear in stores.
Restaurants serve "seasonal" beverages and dishes, with invitations to "seasonal" dinners recommending "holiday dress."
There is nothing that explicitly says it is Christmas, but there is enough of a festive whiff in the air for expatriate shoppers determined to have something resembling a holiday at home.
The little Christmas things count in a country accused by the U.S. State Department of "particularly severe violations" of religious freedom. This year, it placed the kingdom for the first time on a list of countries that could be subject to U.S. sanctions because of religious intolerance.
Also, terror attacks and assassinations targeting Westerners since last year have dampened private celebrations, with many people not holding large bazaars or going to markets downtown to shop for gifts.
Saudi Arabia has stated publicly that its policy is to protect the right of non-Muslims to worship privately. However, Defense Minister Prince Sulta also stressed that the kingdom would never allow churches to be built.
Earlier this year, Sheik Ibrahim al-Ghaith, chief of the powerful religious police, said Saudi Arabia would never allow public displays of non-Muslim faith.
The State Department said in 1993 that "non-Muslim worshippers risked arrest, lashing and deportation for engaging in overt religious activity that attracts official attention."
Saudi Arabia adheres to the strict Wahhabi interpretation of the most conservative school of Sunni Islam, which considers any form of celebration -- birthdays, Valentine's Day and even most Muslim feasts -- to be "religious innovations" that Islam does not sanction.
Saudi Arabia, as the birthplace of Islam, is responsible for protecting the faith's holiest shrines at Mecca and Medina. The government, fearful of having its Islamic credentials questioned because of a serious crackdown on Islamic militants, has given religious police more leeway when it comes to clamping down on religious contraband.
The bans go beyond Christian symbols. Small statues of Buddha are confiscated at airports, and Buddha pictures on a popular CD have been colored over. Ironically, a CD of Gregorian chants sitting next to it was left untouched.
During the Christmas season, embassies hold staff parties where Santa Claus may appear, with some allowing religious services. The State Department report said non-Muslim clergy were not allowed to enter the country to conduct religious services, although some come "under other auspices."
Religious police agents become very active in the days leading up to Christian and Western celebrations. A few weeks ago, a toy store owner was detained for promoting witchcraft because he carried such Halloween decorations as scary masks and witches' hats.
That is why Christmas cards are sold under the counter and only in very few stores. Some florists discreetly sell Christmas trees, mostly artificial ones, and poinsettias. One florist told customers that several dozen fresh trees from Holland were intercepted at the airport, hacked to pieces and then sent back to Holland.
Some expatriates coming from Bahrain, where Christmas is observed openly, have had Christmas decorations confiscated by customs officials.
But not everyone is caught. An American woman at a "holiday supper" brightened up as she recounted how she brought in Christmas ornaments from London for a tree she borrowed from an American neighbor.
The woman declined to be identified because she said the topic may hurt Saudi sensibilities.
Sipping Saudi champagne, a concoction of fizzy water and apple juice, the woman said Christmas used to have its own traditions in Saudi Arabia. American women would make their own Christmas ornaments and shop for old jewelry pieces in the souq -- a venue Westerners do not consider safe anymore -- and dress them up with ribbons.
They also would boil a mix of powdered cinnamon and water that, when hardened, would be cut into the shapes of bells, camels and dallahs -- Saudi coffee pots with curved beaks -- and then hung on the tree.
"These days, we celebrate very quietly. You can't be open about it," she said.