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Christmas Is a Big Hit in Islamic Republic of Pakistan

NBC News

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Like millions of children around the world, Annaseema Peshimam dutifully wrote her letter to Santa Claus in early December, promising she had been a good girl all year. The five-year-old asked for a Mermadia doll, and requested "some things for Shahlale, my sister ... She is too small to write."

And like so many dads, her father Gibran Peshimam mailed a missive addressed to "Santa Claus, North Pole."

Unlike millions of fellow Santa letter-writers, Peshimams are not Christian but Muslim. And they live in Karachi, the teeming megacity in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. They have nevertheless embraced the holiday because it makes sense, Gibran Peshimam said.

"The entire process is so perfect for a child," the 32-year-old online journalist said. "The request to Santa, the anticipation while decorating the tree, the excitement of waking up in the morning to wrapped presents, it is almost like Christmas is made for all children all over the world — regardless of religion or culture."

Image: Annaseema Peshimam
Five-year-old Annaseema Peshimam of Karachi, Pakistan, writes a letter to Santa Claus. Gibran Peshimam

The Peshimams are not alone. Christmas is embraced in certain parts of Pakistani society, especially among the wealthy and educated. Paradoxically, the country is also seeing an uptick in violence against its nearly 4 million Christians as some use the country's controversial "Blasphemy Law" to marginalize and oppress their non-Muslim countrymen.

Christmas kiosks spring up every holiday season. The Kohsar Market in the capital Islamabad, where the elite can buy everything from non-alcoholic eggnog to Santa masks to 20-feet Christmas trees, sits next to mosques, a paramilitary special forces post and a butcher selling "halal" meat prepared to comply with Muslim dietary laws.

The soldiers, who are there to guard against attack on the foreigners who often visit the site, don't deter Imran Masih, a 35-year-old Christian manning one of the kiosks. Business thrives during the holidays, he said, which is good given that he doesn't work much the rest of the time.

"We've been doing this for years," Masih said as he fixed decorations onto miniature Christmas trees. "It's good business in a city where there are people who are exposed to the world."

"Over the last couple of years, we've been seeing fewer and fewer foreigners and more and more locals," said Masih, whose last name means "Christian" in Urdu. "The politics of Osama [bin Laden] have overtaken by Santa Claus!" he said, referring to the former leader of al Qaeda who hid in Pakistan for years and died during a secret U.S. raid in 2011.

But while the well-heeled embrace the holidays' glitz and glitter, the country's beleaguered Christians are struggling to cling to their traditions.

In the yard of a church built in "100 Quarters," a Christian ghetto that lies hidden behind whitewashed walls next to one of Islamabad's poshest neighborhood, groups of young men huddle around open fires. Stray dogs and abandoned vehicles litter the parameter of the church. A couple of obviously inebriated men flail around and sing Bollywood tunes.

Image: A church in “100 Quarters"
A church in “100 Quarters,” a Christian ghetto that lies hidden behind whitewashed walls in Islamabad, Pakistan. Wajahat S. Khan / NBC News

There are no decorations or kiosks in 100 Quarters — a single street light illuminates the churchyard. The stench from overflowing half-frozen sewers permeates the small neighborhood.

"Celebrations will be on Christmas Day, in the church," said Kaisar Maseeh, a local teen as he carried bread home for dinner. "Nobody's got the extra cash to deck this place up ... Maybe some middle-class families will get some special food, but not all of us [Christians]."

Not everyone is deprived of an opulent holiday feast when it comes to Christmas dinner in Pakistan, however.

At a black-tie Christmas ball thrown by a western embassy, well-connected diplomats and privileged predominately Muslim Pakistanis enjoy a fabulous feast. A singer in a ballgown belts out festive favorites like "All I Want for Christmas" and the tables are decked out with Christmas trees.

Image: A Christmas display at the Islamabad Serena Hotel.
A Christmas display at the luxurious Islamabad Serena Hotel. Wajahat S. Khan / NBC News

The menu reads as if an especially corpulent Santa had providing dinner: Brie and cranberry parcels, roast turkey, gravy, beef, stuffing and mushroom roulade. Spiced pumpkin cheesecake and "Christmas Pie Sundae" complete with orange, almond and whisky sauce cap off dinner.

The guests are politely advised by the liveried staff that the pigs-in-blankets and Christmas pie sundae are not halal — pork and alcohol are un-Islamic. Many revelers disregard this information, and continue to enjoy the ball.