Alyssa’s anguish | Inquirer Opinion

Alyssa’s anguish

12:04 AM December 19, 2016

Christmas is here. Streets are aglow with neon lights and lanterns, and festive decor festoons the malls. The airwaves are filled with carols, and the season’s spirit pervades Christendom. It’s a season of merriment, especially for children. But not for 15-year-old Alyssa.

Alyssa is a Muslim by birth. Her parents are devoted Muslims. She grew up and lives in Cagayan de Oro, a Christian community. Her classmates and playmates are Christians. She is my granddaughter and is growing up to be an inquisitive, Socratic interrogator, like her father, Regional Prosecutor Jaime Umpa. She poses seemingly innocent questions for which I have no easy answer.


Scratching her head, Alyssa asks: “If what you say is true, that Jesus Christ is one of the prophets of Almighty Allah, why are we not joining the celebration of his birth month? Why is Mama Panoro always admonishing me to stay away from our class Christmas party and from my barkada caroling in the houses in our village? Will I commit a mortal sin if I sing or even hum a Christmas song?”

Her search for an answer encapsulates the “discomfort” of a Muslim living in a Christian setting. Being a social being, one cannot insulate oneself and stay unfeeling of or disaffected by the ongoing jubilation. One’s problem is rooted in the fatwa (an edict by a Muslim cleric) sternly prohibiting Muslims from celebrating Christmas.


A globally respected Muslim authority, Dr. Bilal Philips, warns Muslims that “wishing people a ‘Merry Christmas’ means that we are accepting the divinity of Jesus.” In fact, in some Muslim states, one is jailed 5-10 years for celebrating Christmas in their jurisdiction. Even singing a Christmas carol or merely saying “Merry Christmas” to a friend will fetch one 1,000 lashes. But can I just ignore a friend sincerely wishing me “Merry Christmas” without being rude or uncivil?

The lawyer in me cannot help but argue: What if I treat Christmas as a social event, not a religious practice? Will I still violate the diktat of the fatwa? Is this not running afoul of the spirit of peace, which Islam (root word: salam, or peace) teaches? Can we not treat the infraction as a mere venial sin?

This dilemma betrays the dichotomy of opinion among Muslims. We are caught in a tug-of-war between the intolerant extremist ideology which gave birth to the Islamic State and the modern, forward-looking tolerant reformists. The former is described by the Aid to Church in Need, a Vatican foundation, as “hyper-extremism … whose intention is to replace pluralism with a religious monoculture,” and the latter is proselytized by the moderates.

I know it’s painful for a child like Alyssa to be deprived of the camaraderie of her friends in this festive month. But this early she has to be told, and she must accept the harsh reality that we live in a divided world. Living among friends of different beliefs and the pressure of pakikisama, a unique Filipino social value, should never be an excuse to abandon deep-seated values. The alternative is apostasy and eternal perdition, or so we say.

When I was the Philippines’ envoy to Egypt, I brought my family to nearby Jerusalem. One incident remains etched on my mind to this day. It was Christmas Eve 2000 and we were watching devotees queuing to enter the Church of the Nativity when a convoy of SUVs with muted sirens and blinkers arrived. We found out that the convoy was bearing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who was accompanying his wife to the church.

The scene touched our hearts. Here was a leader of a radical Muslim liberationist movement, sitting beside his wife in one of Christendom’s holiest places, for the love of her. If only Muslims and non-Muslims would think more of the ties that bind us—we are all descendants of Abraham (Ibrahim to Muslims) with the common goal of salvation—than give undue importance to our differences, there will be world peace.

But will Alyssa go to hell just by attending her class Christmas party and singing, or even humming, a Christmas carol?

Lawyer Macabangkit B. Lanto ([email protected]), UP Law 1967, was a Fulbright Fellow to New York University for his postgraduate studies and served in the government in various capacities.

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TAGS: Christianity, Christmas, Commentary, Holiday, Muslim, opinion, Religion
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