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Celebration of Christmas mostly hidden in Saudi Arabia

Monday, December 23, 2002

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Past the stuffed animals and congratulatory baby baskets, sprigs of plastic evergreens are tucked in among the silk flowers. The rows of ribbon include a few spools of reds, golds and greens, and two half-empty boxes of blown-glass Christmas tree ornaments sit partly obscured on a nearby shelf.

As evinced by the atmosphere in this Riyadh gift shop, Christmas is mostly hidden in this desert kingdom, where Islam is the only accepted religion.

Expatriate workers hold discreet holiday parties within walled compounds, out of sight of the government's religious police, who guard against offenses to the faith. For many other foreigners, the anniversary of Christ's birth is a private day of reflection.

"I only pray in my room," said a Roman Catholic laborer from Sri Lanka, noting there is little else to do to celebrate Christmas.

Some embassies, he said, organize gatherings for their citizens during the holiday season, but generally not on Christmas Day to avoid offending Saudi sensibilities.

Saudi Arabia, as the birthplace of Islam, is charged with protecting the faith's holiest shrines at Mecca and Medina, and differing beliefs, like new ideas, are carefully guarded against as threats to the culture, traditions and official religion.

Churches are not permitted -- "freedom of religion does not exist," a recent State Department report said about Saudi Arabia -- though some expatriates gather privately throughout the year for religious services.

Not everywhere

It is not that way everywhere in the Middle East. In the neighboring Persian Gulf state of Bahrain, luxury hotels are decorated with brightly lit trees and poinsettias, and signs advertise Christmas meals. At the Holiday Inn, strains of "Silver Bells" and "White Christmas" waft through the lobby.

Christmas trees are sold in the Yemeni capital of San'a and in expatriate neighborhoods of Cairo. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak declared last week that Jan. 7 -- when the country's minority Orthodox Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas -- was a holiday for all Egyptians.

But in Riyadh, the mere mention of Christmas leads many expatriates to lower their voices and fidget, fearful of unwanted attention or risking their jobs. Just buying a Christmas card requires a whispered journey into a greeting card underworld.

At the Riyadh gift shop where a few festive decorations were tucked in among other goods, a Filipino employee shakes his head when asked about Christmas cards. But he gives directions to another shop, advising an inquirer to look for the Filipino manager.

"He'll give you one in secret ... secret because it's 'haram' here, you know," he says, using the Arabic word for "forbidden" known to anyone who has run afoul of conservative Islamic social norms.

At another card shop, an Indian employee reaches beneath the counter to pull out a half-dozen religious and secular Christmas cards, his eyes darting around his empty shop and out the window.

There would be trouble if caught: "They ask where you got them," he says. The ever-vigilant religious police have confiscated cards in the past, he said, and have even been known to haul shopkeepers away to be questioned about where they got such materials.

Clearly relieved once he is able to tuck the purchases into a paper bag and staple it shut, he points to a less offensive "Seasons Greetings" card, discreetly visible beside the cash register.

At $1.35, they're half the price of the Christmas cards, and half the risk.


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