CHRISTMAS items go on sale publicly in Saudi Arabia:

RIYADH : Christmas trees and glittery ornaments are for sale at a Saudi gift shop, a once unthinkable sight in the kingdom where worship by non-Muslims in public is banned.

In recent years, festive sales have gradually crept into the capital Riyadh, a sign of loosening social restrictions after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pledged to steer the conservative Gulf Kingdom towards an ''open, moderate Islam.''

''I didn't ever imagine I would see this'' in Saudi Arabia, a Riyadh resident said at the shop selling trees, Santa Claus outfits as well as tinsel, baubles and other ornaments.

''I'm surprised,'' said the resident declining to be identified.

Until barely three years ago, it was almost impossible to sell such items openly in Saudi Arabia, but authorities have been reducing the power of the clerical establishment.

For decades, Christmas sales were largely underground, and Christians from the Philippines, Lebanon and other countries celebrated behind closed doors or in expat enclaves.

''It was very difficult to find such '' Christmas items in the Kingdom, said Mary, a Lebanese expat based in Riyadh who preferred to be identified by her first name.

''Many of my friends used to buy them in Lebanon or Syria and sneak them into the country,'' she said.

But in a sign of changing times, the Riyadh shop manager,Omar, who declined to provide his surname, said his store sold not just Christmas items but also outfits for Halloween - widely seen by arch-conservatives as an American tradition that is a deviation from Islam.

Saudi Arabia is the custodian of Makkah and Madina, Islam's two holiest cities. But the country has largely been pushing for inter-religious exchange. [AFP]


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