At least two Muslim countries — Brunei and Somalia — have officially banned Christmas celebrations this year, while another — Saudi Arabia — has had a long-standing ban in place against them.
Pakistan is doing somewhat better by not officially banning celebrations of religious holidays of minority communities, and the leadership too has seen it fit to participate on a few occasions, demonstrating some semblance of openness tolerance at a time of general upheaval in the Muslim world.
But it is also important to realise that it will take a lot more than platitudes from the top to make a genuine difference in the daily lives of minority communities in the country.
Over the years, creeping intolerance across society has been twisting itself like a vine around the country’s minorities, to the point where there is genuine hesitation on their part to openly practise their faith or celebrate their holidays. This wasn’t always the case in Pakistan.
There was a time when Christmas was a festive occasion in most parts of the country, particularly in Karachi where balls were held in hotels and Christmas trees could be seen in many public locations.
All that is now gone or is confined largely to churches and a few select shops and malls participating in the season’s cheer.
Many members of the Christian community have either moved out of Karachi, or are too afraid to celebrate in public, and many in Punjab are too fearful to even worship openly, given the animosity they have faced even from ordinary people.
Indeed, there have been incidents where they have been attacked, killed or have seen their homes being burned down. It was positive to see the leadership partaking of Diwali and Christmas festivities with members of the Hindu and Christian communities. But the challenge ahead is much bigger, and cannot be met through a few gestures.
There are ingrained attitudes as well as economic disparities that need to be addressed, in addition to reforming a legal framework that enshrines discrimination.
Perhaps we should use this season, when Muslims and Christians both have cause to celebrate, to embrace the view that religion is about peace, understanding and a search for our common humanity, and not about violence and severing the bonds of empathy.
One much-needed step in this direction would be for our leaders to implement measures that would restore a sense of security amongst our minorities. No celebration would be complete without that.
Published in Dawn, December 25th, 2015