Christians in Saudi Arabia observe Christmas in new season of religious tolerance

Christians in Saudi Arabia observe Christmas in new season of religious tolerance
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English instructor Lydia Diggs (below) can celebrate Christmas with her family over her phone, and she enjoys creating a special festive environment. (Supplied)
Expats living in Saudi Arabia choose Christmas decorations at a gift shop in the capital Riyadh. AFP
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Expats living in Saudi Arabia choose Christmas decorations at a gift shop in the capital Riyadh. AFP
Christians in Saudi Arabia observe Christmas in new season of religious tolerance
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Lidiane Ramos Faubel spending Christmas in the Netherlands. (Supplied)
Christians in Saudi Arabia observe Christmas in new season of religious tolerance
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Fina Concepcion and her son at a shopping mall in the Philippines during Christmas last year. (Supplied)
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Updated 25 December 2020

Christians in Saudi Arabia observe Christmas in new season of religious tolerance

Christians in Saudi Arabia observe Christmas in new season of religious tolerance
  • Greater tolerance towards other faiths means a more festive mood despite the damper put by the pandemic on the holiday spirit
  • Sale of Christmas decorations in a Riyadh shop perfectly captures the zeitgeist of a new era in the Kingdom

RIYADH: Christmas in Saudi Arabia this year feels different in a very remarkable way. Christmas trees and decorations are for sale at a gift shop in Riyadh. Scenes of people buying Santa Claus outfits, tinsel, baubles and other ornaments from the shop in the Saudi capital are an unmistakable sign of greater tolerance towards other religions and faiths.

In recent years, festive sales have gradually been introduced into Riyadh, reflecting the process of social liberalization that began with a decree issued in 2016 by the Cabinet, restricting the ability of the Saudi Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice to pursue and arrest violators.

In February, shops sold red roses and teddy bears in celebration of Valentine’s Day, a development that too was unthinkable just two years ago. Now, the sale of Christmas decorations in Riyadh perfectly captures the zeitgeist of a new era in the Kingdom.

To be sure, for Christian households the world over, Christmas this year is like no other. The combination of pandemic-linked curbs on family gatherings and financial hardships brought on by lockdown measures has taken some of the shine off the Dec. 25 holiday.

 

For the Christian expat community of Saudi Arabia, where various restrictions related to COVID-19 remain in effect, the day will probably be more a time for reflection than rejoicing.

The situation in the Gulf region is no different from the rest of the world. The festive traditions of big family get-togethers, religious gatherings, parties with friends and colleagues, and alpine-themed Christmas markets have this year been forced online or canceled altogether as governments restrict travel, impose limits on households mixing and scrub the social calendar.

Saudi Arabia imposed travel restrictions in March to help contain the coronavirus outbreak. Although the Kingdom partially lifted flight bans on Sept. 15, all international flights were again suspended on Dec. 20 for one week following reports of a new virus strain emerging in Europe.

“As a Christian based in Saudi Arabia, I’m celebrating Christmas in solitude away from the family,” Jeruel Trinidad, an American expat working in Riyadh, told Arab News.

“Usually, I go home at this time of year to reunite with my loved ones, but this year, for obvious reasons, I’m stuck where I am. I’ll survive Christmas by treating myself in a cozy restaurant that serves my favorite dishes, engage in a lot of video calls with relatives back home, meet up with friends in the same predicament as me, and most importantly, continue working to keep myself busy so I can forget the nostalgia. Once all this is over, I’ll go home when I can.”

Many Christian families had hoped that the pandemic would be under control by December, and had dreamed of festive reunions following months of separation and isolation. But the World Health Organization has warned of “a significant risk of increased COVID-19 transmission during the upcoming holiday season,” with experts advising against unnecessary travel and indoor religious gatherings.

The situation is unlikely to change significantly by Jan. 7 in the new year, when Coptic Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ following the Coptic calendar.

Although disappointed, many Christian expats in Saudi Arabia are determined to mark the occasion, albeit responsibly. Berney James, an Indian national based in Riyadh, admits things will not be the same, but says he will not allow the pandemic to dampen his festive spirit.




Christmas decorations at a mall in Jeddah. (Supplied)

“There is no place like home to celebrate Christmas,” James told Arab News. “There’s a lot of expectation, but also disappointment going around this time due to travel restrictions amid the pandemic. Nevertheless, we’re decorating our homes and organizing meals with friends.”

Christian expats in the Kingdom, as elsewhere during this pandemic year, are trying to make the best of a bad situation and focusing on the positives.

Fina Concepcion, an occupational therapist at Prince Sultan Military Medical City in Riyadh, usually returns home to the Philippines to celebrate with her extended family.

This year, she has tried to create as magical a Christmas as possible for her young son. A new gift-wrapped toy awaits under their makeshift tree for him to open on Christmas morning.

Simbang Gabi, or Night Mass, is an important nine-day religious observance performed each year in the Philippines in anticipation of Christmas.

This year, Concepcion’s family and many other Catholic Filipinos are missing out. She is hopeful the pandemic will soon be brought under control so she can book a visit home.




Fina Concepcion's children spending Christmas in Riyadh.  (Supplied)
 

While some expat households will try to recreate the traditions of a more familiar Christmas, others have embraced Saudi pastimes to help quash their longings for home.

Arnold Gonzales Pineda, a Filipino expat based in the Saudi city of Buraydah, told Arab News: “On Christmas Eve there will be feasting, a little bit of singing, and exchanging of gifts depending on what everyone can afford.”

Nonie Sagadal Jr., a resident of Riyadh, explained that Filipinos in Saudi Arabia normally celebrate Christmas in different ways: “Some organize parties in their accommodation or camps by organizing programs and exchanging gifts. They sing in groups during these gatherings and even dance to the music.

“Other groups, consisting of friends or co-workers, celebrate Christmas night by going out. They take a break from kitchen chores and dine out.”

Sadagal Jr. said families, on the other hand, typically enjoy themselves by spending Christmas Day in public parks or meeting up for a meal in a restaurant.

For Lidiane Ramos Faubel, a personal fitness and martial arts trainer from Brazil, spending time with friends and loved ones is more important than the season’s religious observances.

To ease the pangs of homesickness, she is grateful to have a community of Brazilian friends in Jeddah to share the holidays with.




Lidiane Ramos Faubel spending Christmas with her family. (Supplied)

Lydia Diggs, an instructor of English at Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz University and a holistic coach, said she would have loved to spend Christmas with her family, but the significance of the season is more spiritual than material for her at a personal level.

Nevertheless, she added, she appreciates the “Merry Christmas” greetings from students as they create a more welcoming environment.

This year, Don Owens, a senior manager of polymer and material sciences at SABIC’s Corporate Research and Development Center at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), is spending his first Christmas in Saudi Arabia.

Rather than traveling home to the US to spend the holidays with his extended family, he is using this time to explore Saudi Arabia’s natural wonders with a Christmas camping trip. “One of our favorite things to do in Saudi Arabia this time of year is take trips into the desert,” Owens told Arab News.

“We’ve decided to get together with some friends from here at KAUST and do a two-day camping trip in the desert. This will be our first time spending the night in the desert, so the whole family is very excited about this.”

Sarah Palmer, who works for John Hopkins Aramco Healthcare in Dhahran, told Arab News: “I’m Australian, so a sunny Saudi Christmas Day is perfect for me. We have friends here who’ve become as close as family, so on Christmas Day we’ll have an outdoor lunch by the pool while enjoying the perfect weather.”




Lydia with her family on Christmas two years ago. (Supplied)

As for family members thousands of miles away, the internet has been a godsend through the months of separation.

“There will be lots of messaging with family around the world, sharing videos of the children opening presents, photos of the food and, of course, FaceTime so the kids can see their cousins and grandparents,” Palmer said.

Christmas may seem different this year, particularly for expats spending the festive period far from home. But with the Kingdom’s increasingly open, tolerant environment, a few reminders of home in the shopping aisles and a little help from smartphone technology, it is sure to be one to remember.

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‘A modern vision to life’

On a state visit to Egypt in March 2018, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman invited Pope Tawadros II, the leader of the country’s Coptic Orthodox Church, to the Kingdom. During a tour of Cairo’s St. Mark’s cathedral, the crown prince said all Coptic Christians were welcome in Saudi Arabia.

Recalling the meeting, Tawadros, in an exclusive interview later with Arab News Editor in chief Faisal J. Abbas, said: The crown prince is “an open-minded person who has a modern vision to life, and this pleases us a lot.” A delegation was to visit Saudi Arabia shortly afterwards to lead private sermons for Coptic Christians living in the Kingdom.

Tawadros also said the meetings that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Saudi officials were holding “on all levels, whether religious, political or cultural, are very beneficial to the nation and the Kingdom and contribute to human development.”

Also in March 2018, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman held a private meeting in London with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, where they discussed the reforms underway in Saudi Arabia. "The Crown Prince made a strong commitment to promote the flourishing of those of different faith traditions, and to interfaith dialogue within the Kingdom and beyond," the archbishop's office said.

In September 2019, a delegation of evangelical Christian leaders visited Saudi Arabia and held meetings aimed at promoting interfaith harmony. The group, led by Joel Rosenberg, an American author, was received by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and stress was laid on efforts to promote coexistence and tolerance as well as to combat extremism and terrorism.

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Arab coalition intercepts, destroys Houthi drone targeting Khamis Mushait

Arab coalition intercepts, destroys Houthi drone targeting Khamis Mushait
Updated 09 May 2021

Arab coalition intercepts, destroys Houthi drone targeting Khamis Mushait

Arab coalition intercepts, destroys Houthi drone targeting Khamis Mushait
  • The coalition said it is taking operational measures to deal with sources of threat to protect civilians and civilian objects
  • The coalition confirmed that the Houthis’ attempt to target civilians was a serious violation of international law

DUBAI: The Arab coalition intercepted and destroyed a Houthi drone targeting Saudi Arabia’s Khamis Mushait, state news agency SPA reported.
The coalition said it is taking operational measures to deal with sources of threat to protect civilians and civilian objects.

The coalition also confirmed that the Houthis’ attempt to target civilians was a serious violation of international law.

The Iran-backed militia has been intensifying attacks against Saudi Arabia, targeting key oil facilities and civilians amid international and Arab condemnation in support of the Kingdom’s security.

 


KSA poll finds 72 percent fall in Saudi socializing in pandemic-hit Ramadan

KSA poll finds 72 percent fall in Saudi socializing in pandemic-hit Ramadan
The findings revealed a 39 percent increase in mobile phone use and 52 percent of people spent their time on other entertainment activities. (Social media)
Updated 09 May 2021

KSA poll finds 72 percent fall in Saudi socializing in pandemic-hit Ramadan

KSA poll finds 72 percent fall in Saudi socializing in pandemic-hit Ramadan
  • Saudis reduced visits to relatives by 46 percent and to friends by 54 percent, the center found

JEDDAH: A new poll has revealed that Saudis reduced their participation in social events by more than 70 percent amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The results were part of a recent telephone study by the Saudi Center for Opinion Polling that surveyed a random sample of 1,190 people aged 18 years and older during Ramadan.
Saudis also reduced visits to relatives by 46 percent and to friends by 54 percent, the center found. During Ramadan, 42 percent of people maintained regular levels physical exercise, while 39 percent of respondents said they watched less television.
The findings also revealed a 39 percent increase in mobile phone use and that 52 percent of people spent their time on other entertainment activities.
Speaking to Arab News, Arwa Meer, an admin supervisor at a Jeddah hospital, said that she had reduced her social activities due to the nature of her work environment.
“Last Ramadan, I was working for the whole period of the COVID-19 curfews and lockdowns. Even if I had time, I wouldn’t see anyone because I was in constant contact with COVID-19 cases. That was something that made me refrain from seeing anyone,” Meer told Arab News.
However, this year has also created a similar situation, she said. “There’s potential exposure to COVID-19 cases as I continue my work at the hospital. Some of my colleagues got infected, so that made me refrain from social gatherings and visits even more. Even with my family at home, I try to avoid physical contact with them as much as possible, just as a precaution not to possibly infect anyone if I was a carrier.”
When asked if her visits to friends had also changed, the supervisor said the pandemic forced her to become “less social.”
She added: “The pandemic has made us all a little less social actually. It’s been a long time since I’ve last seen my friends. I see them maybe once a month. This Ramadan, I didn’t see my friends at all, not for iftar or sahoor.”

HIGHLIGHT

The results were part of a recent telephone study by the Saudi Center for Opinion Polling that surveyed a random sample of 1,190 people aged 18 years and older during Ramadan.

Sharing the same sentiment, 28-year-old Talal Al-Shammari from Jeddah said that it is “only natural” that family visits will decrease during the current circumstances.
“Nobody wants to be put in such a situation to be infected in the first place. Everyone is afraid for their family members over themselves,” he told Arab News. “No one would ever want to harm their relatives or friends, especially the elderly, those with a weaker immune system or children.”
The survey found that online shopping was also unaffected during Ramadan when compared with previous levels.
Meanwhile, 68 percent of people surveyed reported that higher levels of advertising during Ramadan did not affect their buying decisions. “Another surprising result is that the majority (79 percent) were reluctant to eat in restaurants during Ramadan,” the survey said.
Other results revealed that total hours of sleep during Ramadan increased for just 25 percent of respondents, while the majority of those surveyed said that they did not “significantly change their lifestyles” during Ramadan.
The survey also found that 58 percent of people did not notice a change in their moods or emotions during the period.
Work discipline remained the same for 81 percent of people, as did working hours for 79 percent of respondents.
The Saudi Center for Opinion Polling is a not-for-profit organization authorized by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development, and the Ministry of Commerce.


Saudi authorities intensify preparations at Two Holy Mosques ahead of 27th and 29th nights of Ramadan

The General Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques said they are working in joint cooperation around the clock. (SPA)
The General Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques said they are working in joint cooperation around the clock. (SPA)
Updated 09 May 2021

Saudi authorities intensify preparations at Two Holy Mosques ahead of 27th and 29th nights of Ramadan

The General Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques said they are working in joint cooperation around the clock. (SPA)
  • The authority intensified COVID-19 preventive measures inside the Two Holy Mosques

JEDDAH: Authorities in Saudi Arabia intensified preparations to receive pilgrims and worshipers for the 27th and 29th nights of the Muslim month of Ramadan at the Grand Mosque in Makkah and the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah.
Hani bin Hosni Haider, spokesman for the General Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques, said the authority intensified coronavirus preventive measures, particularly purification and sterilization operations, and technical and transportation operations, including providing vehicles inside the Two Holy Mosques.
Haidar said staff are working around the clock and have also intensified regulating entry and exit mechanisms and services provided to pilgrims and worshipers under the supervision of head of the presidency, Sheikh Abdulrahman Al-Sudais.
He said that the presidency coordinated with relevant authorities to organize the movement of pilgrims and worshippers inside the Grand Mosque and the Prophet’s Mosque and its squares, to ensure their safety and to fulfill the precautionary health requirements.
Haidar said the “presidency was keen to intensify its efforts to achieve the aspirations of the Kingdom’s leadership and highlight the great efforts the state is making toward the Two Holy Mosques.”


Saudi authorities bust hashish, khat smuggling operations 

Saudi authorities bust hashish, khat smuggling operations 
Updated 08 May 2021

Saudi authorities bust hashish, khat smuggling operations 

Saudi authorities bust hashish, khat smuggling operations 
  • A total of 41 people have been arrested in connection with the drug smuggling attempts

RIYADH: Authorities in Saudi Arabia have arrested several people in connection with the seizure of a large quantity of illegal drugs in the Jazan and Najran regions.
Lt. Col. Mesfer bin Ghanam Al-Quraini, spokesman for the Border Guards, said that the seizures came as part of the continuous monitoring of criminal drug activities targeting the Kingdom.
Al-Quraini added that 802 kilograms of hashish was seized in Jazan and Najran, and 25 individuals suspected to be involved in the smuggling operation were arrested, including 14 Yemeni nationals, four Ethiopians, three Saudis, two Somalis and two Pakistanis.
He said that among several other security operations conducted by the Border Guards, 25.4 tons of khat were seized in the Jazan region and 16 people were arrested, all of whom are Yemeni nationals.
The spokesman said: “The Border Guards will continue to carry out their tasks with great determination to confront attempts to smuggle narcotic substances across all borders, and arrest those involved.”


Saudi Arabia’s Hail region arrests 11 people in quarantine measure bust

Saudi Arabia’s Hail region arrests 11 people in quarantine measure bust
Preliminary legal measures have been taken against those arrested in preparation for their referral to the Saudi Public Prosecution. (SPA)
Updated 09 May 2021

Saudi Arabia’s Hail region arrests 11 people in quarantine measure bust

Saudi Arabia’s Hail region arrests 11 people in quarantine measure bust
  • Saudi Arabia has administered more than 10.3 million COVID-19 vaccines so far

JEDDAH: Saudi authorities have said that they are “remaining vigilant” and continuing to penalize people who violate health and quarantine measures in the Kingdom.
On Saturday, media spokesman for Hail region police Tariq Al-Nassar said that 11 people were arrested in the region for violating quarantine rules after they were notified of positive COVID-19 tests.
Preliminary legal measures have been taken against those arrested in preparation for their referral to the Saudi Public Prosecution.
Provisions and penalties mean that those who violate quarantine instructions will be punished with a fine not exceeding SR200,000 ($53,000), or imprisonment for a period not exceeding two years, or both.
If the violation is repeated, the punishment is doubled. Expats who violate these terms and repeat an offense will be deported and prohibited from returning to the Kingdom after completing a sentence.

FASTFACT

The total number of coronavirus cases in KSA reached 425,442.

On Saturday, 997 new COVID-19 cases were recorded in the Kingdom, meaning that 425,442 people in Saudi Arabia have now contracted the disease.
Saturday also saw 1,026 new recoveries, bringing the total number of recoveries over the course of the pandemic to 408,676. The Kingdom’s death toll rose to 7,059 after 14 new COVID-19-related deaths were recorded.
Saudi Arabia has administered more than 10.3 million COVID-19 vaccines so far.
There were 69,482 PCR tests carried out in the past 24 hours, raising the total number conducted in the Kingdom to more than 17.4 million.