BruneiInternational Religious Freedom Report 2008
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
The Constitution states, "The religion of Brunei Darussalam shall be the Muslim religion according to the Shafi'i sect of that religion: Provided that all other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony by the person professing them in any part of Brunei Darussalam." Other laws and policies placed restrictions religious groups that did not adhere to the Shafi'i school of Sunni Islam.
There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom by the Government during the period covered by this report. The Government continued to favor the propagation of Shafi'i beliefs and practices, particularly through public events and the education system. Muslims remained subject to the Government's interpretation of Shari'a (Islamic law). Non-Muslims sometimes faced social or, less frequently, official pressure to conform to Islamic guidelines on behavior. The Government maintained a ban on a number of groups it considers "deviant," and it banned three additional groups during the period covered by this report. Practitioners of non-Muslim faiths were not allowed to proselytize. Laws and regulations generally limited access to religious literature, places of worship, and public religious gatherings for non-Muslims.
The country's various religious groups coexist peacefully, although ecumenical interaction was limited by common interpretations of rulings by religious officials that place religious sanctions against Muslims appearing to support non-Muslim religions by engaging in interfaith dialogue.
The U.S. Government regularly discusses religious freedom with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. During the period covered by this report, the U.S. Embassy supported religious freedom through a number of programs, including the Fulbright exchange program, visits to places of worship, and dialogue with government officials.
Section I. Religious Demography
The country has an area of 2,200 square miles and a population of 380,000. According to official statistics, the population includes 185,803 Muslims, 17,989 Buddhists, 6,618 Christians, 694 Roman Catholics, 230 Hindus, 72 Baha'is, 34 atheists, 40 Taoists, 33 Sikhs, 30 Jews, and 5 Nasrani, as well as 63 individuals of other faiths and 14,794 who did not state their faith. The Government categorizes Catholics as distinct from other Christians. There is also an indigenous population that adheres to traditional beliefs, although they often convert either to Islam or Christianity.
Section II. Status of Religious Freedom
The Constitution states, "The religion of Brunei Darussalam shall be the Muslim religion according to the Shafi'i sect of that religion: Provided that all other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony by the person professing them in any part of Brunei Darussalam." Other laws and policies placed restrictions on religious groups that do not adhere to the Shafi'i school of Sunni Islam.
The Government describes the country as a Malay Islamic Monarchy and actively encourages its Muslim citizens to adhere to Islamic values and traditions. The Ministry of Religious Affairs is responsible for propagating and reinforcing the Shafi'i beliefs and practices as well as enforcing Shari'a laws, which exist alongside secular laws and apply only to Muslims. Islamic authorities organize a range of dakwah (proselytizing activities) and incentives to adopt Islam. Incentives for prospective converts, especially those from the indigenous communities in rural areas, include monthly financial assistance, new homes, electric generators, and water pumps.
The Societies Order of 2005 requires all organizations, including any non-Shafi'i religious group, to register and provide the names of their members. The application process is overseen by the Registrar of Societies, who exercises discretion over applications and may refuse approval for any reason. Unregistered organizations can face charges of unlawful assembly and be fined. Individuals who participate in or influence others to join unregistered organizations can be fined, arrested, and imprisoned.
There are 91 mosques and Muslim prayer halls, 7 Christian churches, 3 Chinese temples, and 1 Hindu temple officially registered in the country. The Government continued to enforce zoning laws that prohibit the use of private homes as places of worship. However, there were reports that unregistered religious groups conducted religious observances without interference from the authorities.
Restrictions on Religious Freedom
Since the early 1990s, the Government has worked to reinforce the legitimacy of the hereditary monarchy and the observance of traditional and Muslim values by promoting a national ideology, known as the Melayu Islam Beraja (MIB), or Malay Islamic Monarchy. MIB principles have been adopted as the basis for civic life. All government meetings and ceremonies commence with a Muslim prayer. When attending citizenship ceremonies, non-Muslims must wear national dress, including Muslim head coverings for men and women.
Despite constitutional provisions providing for religious freedom, the Government restricted, to varying degrees, the religious practices of all religious groups other than the Shafi'i school of Sunni Islam. Proselytizing by any group other than the official Shafi'i sect was prohibited. The Government bans the importation of religious teaching materials or scriptures such as the Bible, and has refused permission to establish or build new churches, temples, or shrines. It has also bans several religious groups that it considers deviant, including al-Arqam, Abdul Razak Mohammad, al-Ma'unah, Saihoni Taispan, and the Baha'i Faith. In March 2008 the Government banned three other "deviant" sects: Tariqat Mufarridiyyah, Silat Lintau, and Qadiyaniah. Under the Islamic Religious Council Act, anyone who publicly teaches or promotes any "deviant" beliefs or practices in public may be charged under the Islamic Religious Council Act and punished with 3 months' incarceration and a fine of $1,400 (B$ 2000). The Government periodically cautioned the population about "outsiders" preaching radical Islamic fundamentalist or unorthodox beliefs and warned Muslims against Christian evangelists, most recently in 2005 during a sermon at the national mosque.
A 1964 fatwa issued by the State Mufti strongly discourages Muslims from assisting non-Muslim organizations in propagating their faiths, and the Ministry of Religious Affairs reportedly uses the fatwa to influence other government authorities either to deny non-Shafi'i religious organizations permission for a range of religious and administration activities or to fail to respond to applications from these groups. Nonetheless, Christian churches and their associated schools have been allowed, for safety reasons, to repair, expand, and renovate buildings on their sites. A significant example of this occurred in 2006 when the Government approved a request from the Anglican St. Andrews Church to undertake a major refurbishment of its buildings. Though the reconstruction permit was briefly suspended, it was reissued in March 2007, and reconstruction was completed during the reporting period.
Any public assembly of five or more persons requires official approval in advance, regardless of the purpose of the assembly. Chinese temples were granted permission from relevant authorities to celebrate seasonal religious events. During the period covered by this report, the Government continued to permit Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations outside the grounds of Chinese temples.
Government officials guarded against the distribution and sale of any item that features images of undesirable or religious symbols. The Government routinely censored magazine articles on non-Shafi'i faiths, blacking out or removing photographs of crucifixes and other Christian religious symbols.
There were reports that agents of the Internal Security Department monitored religious services at Christian churches and that senior church members believed that they were under intermittent surveillance.
The Government requires residents to carry identity cards that state the bearer's ethnicity, which is used in part to determine whether they are Muslim and thus subject to Shari'a law. Ethnic Malays are generally assumed to be Muslim. Non-Muslims are not held accountable to Shari'a precepts, and religious authorities check identity cards for ethnicity when conducting raids against suspected violators of Shari'a. Visitors to the country were asked to identify their religion on visa applications, and foreign Muslims are subject to Shari'a precepts; however, many visitors do not identify their faith and have not been challenged.
Authorities continued to arrest persons for offenses under Shari'a, such as khalwat (close proximity between unmarried persons of the opposite sex) and consumption of alcohol. According to statistics released by religious authorities, 691 khalwat cases were recorded during the period covered by this report. Government officials report that in many cases, khalwat charges are dropped before prosecution due to lack of evidence. Most of those detained for a first offense were fined and released, although in previous reporting periods, some persons were imprisoned for up to 4 months for repeated offenses of khalwat. By law, men are liable to a $634 (B$1,000) and women to a $317 (B$500) fine if convicted of khalwat.
Religious authorities regularly participated in raids to confiscate alcoholic beverages and non-halal meats brought into the country without proper customs clearance. They also monitored restaurants and supermarkets to ensure conformity with halal practices. Restaurants and service employees that served Muslims in daylight hours during the fasting month were fined. Non-halal restaurants and non-halal sections in supermarkets were allowed to operate without interference from religious authorities.
The Ministry of Education requires courses on Islam and the MIB in all schools that adhere to the state curriculum. Most school textbooks were illustrated to portray Islam as the norm, and often all women and girls were shown wearing the Muslim head covering. There were no depictions of practices of other religions in textbooks. The Ministry of Education prohibits the teaching of other religions and comparative religious studies. Private schools are not required to teach Islam, but many make voluntary Ugama instruction available on an extra-curricular, after-hours basis for their Muslim students. Ugama is a 6-year education system that teaches Sunni Islam under the Shafi'i school of thought. At one private school that offers Islamic instruction during regular school hours, Christian students have been allowed to attend Christian religious instruction during periods when Muslim students receive Islamic instruction. The Government did not prohibit or restrict parents from providing religious instruction for their children in their own homes.
There is no legal requirement for women to wear head coverings in public; however, prevailing social customs were reinforced by religious authorities to encourage Muslim women to wear the tudong, a traditional head covering, and many women did so. In government schools and institutions of higher learning, Muslim and non-Muslim female students must wear Islamic attire, including a head covering as a part of their uniform. Male students are expected to wear the songkok (hat) although this is not required in all schools. In previous reporting periods, there were some reports that non-Muslim women teachers at public schools were pressured by government officials or colleagues to wear Muslim attire.
Under the Emergency (Islamic Family Law) Order 1999, Muslim women have similar rights as Muslim men in matters of divorce and child custody. The Government's interpretation of Islamic inheritance law holds that female Muslims' inheritance will be half that of male heirs.
Marriage between Muslims and non-Muslims is not permitted, and non-Muslims must convert to Islam if they wish to marry a Muslim. Government statistics indicated that 24 percent of the 351 conversions to Islam during the reporting period were due to marriage. Muslims may legally convert to another religion; however, they often face significant official and societal pressure not to convert. Permission from the Ministry of Religious Affairs must be obtained before converting from Islam, and there was no record of anyone requesting such permission during the reporting period.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs reported six cases of "deviancy" during the reporting period in which Muslim youths allegedly denounced their faith by wearing temporary tattoos with a Christian cross and text that included the phrase "Jesus bless me." Charges were dropped and the youths were given a warning.
Abuses of Religious Freedom
Those adhering to faiths other than Islam are allowed to practice their beliefs, provided that they exercise restraint and do not proselytize. In previous reporting periods non-Muslims who proselytized were arrested or detained and sometimes held without charges for extended periods of time; however, no such arrests or detentions occurred during the period covered by this report.
There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees in the country.
Forced Religious Conversion
There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States. If parents convert to Islam, there is often family and official pressure for the children to do the same. However, the law states that the conversion of children is not automatic and a person must be at least 14 years old to make such a commitment. In previous reporting periods there were reports of teenage children who refused such conversion.
Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom
In February 2008 the Sultan and royal family members attended several Chinese New Year celebrations sponsored by the Chinese community.
The Government permits the Iban (indigenous tribe) Brunei Association to celebrate the annual "Hari Gawai," a ritual for giving thanks to the God of Paddy. During the reporting period, senior government officials attended the ceremony for the first time, a fact that was widely reported in the local media.
Section III. Societal Abuses and Discrimination
The country's various religious groups coexist peacefully, although ecumenical interaction was limited by common interpretations of rulings by religious officials that place religious sanctions on Muslims appearing to support non-Muslim religions by engaging in interfaith dialogue.
The Government sponsored a multi-faith delegation to the inaugural Regional Youth Interfaith forum in Australia in December 2007. In previous reporting periods, the Government also sponsored participation in the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Interfaith Dialogue and other ecumenical events.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. The U.S. Embassy continued to increase contacts and dialogue with government officials and representatives of all religious groups, including minorities. Embassy representatives continued to encourage the Government to adhere to the spirit of its Constitution and its declarations on human rights. In July 2007 the Embassy hosted an American Muslim speaker who spoke on "Muslim Youth in America" at the Institute Tahfiz al-Quran, and met with government religious officials at the Islamic Dakwah Centre. One government official completed a master's degree in Religious Studies at Arizona State University in January 2008 on a Fulbright scholarship.
Released on September 19, 2008
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