International Religious Freedom Report 2003
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

The Constitution states that "The religion of Brunei Darussalam shall be the Muslim religion according to the Shafeite 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;" however, the Government imposes some restrictions on non-Islamic religions.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. The official religion is Islam. Other religions, such as Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism, also are practiced; however, practitioners of non-Muslim faiths are not allowed to proselytize, and Christian-based schools are not allowed to teach the Christian religion. All schools, including eight non-government Chinese schools and four Christian-based schools, must give instruction in the Islamic faith to all students. The Government uses a range of municipal and planning legislation to restrict the expansion of all religions other than official Islam. The Government detained several Christians in late 2000 and 2001 for alleged subversive activities. These individuals subsequently were released, the last of them in October 2001 after taking an oath of allegiance to the Sultan.

The country's various religious groups coexist peacefully, but ecumenical interaction is hampered by the dominant Islamic religious ethos, which discourages Muslims from learning about other faiths. At the same time, Islamic authorities organize a range of activities to explain and propagate Islam, which they term "dialog" but which are in fact one-way exchanges.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of approximately 2,227 square miles, and its resident population is approximately 360,000. The Government does not publish detailed data on religious affiliation; however, other sources indicate that 67 percent of the population are Muslim, 13 percent are Buddhist, 10 percent are Christian, and another 10 percent adhere to indigenous beliefs or other faiths. About 20 percent of the population are ethnic Chinese, of which approximately half are Christians (Anglicans, Catholics, and Methodists) and half are Buddhists. There also is a large workforce that includes Australian, British, Filipino, South Asian, Indonesian, and Malaysian expatriates that includes Muslims, Christians, and Hindus.

There are 101 mosques and prayer halls, 7 Christian churches, several Chinese temples, and 2 Hindu temples in the country.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution states that, "The religion of Brunei Darussalam shall be the Muslim religion according to the Shafeite 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;" however, the Government imposes some restrictions on non-Islamic religions. The official religion is Islam as practiced by the Shafeite School.

The Government describes the country as a Malay Islamic monarchy. The Government actively promotes adherence to Islamic values and traditions by its Muslim residents. The Ministry of Religious Affairs deals solely with Islam and Islamic laws, which exist alongside secular laws and apply only to Muslims.

Religious organizations other than those specifically mentioned in the Constitution are required to register with the Government, as are commercial and nonreligious organizations, under the Societies Act. An organization that fails to register can face charges of unlawful assembly, and its members can be arrested and imprisoned, as well as incur financial penalties.

While Brunei has several Chinese temples, only one, in the capital, is officially registered. The other temples have not faced charges for failing to register, but they are not allowed to organize functions and celebrations.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

In 2002 the Government, using zoning laws which prohibit the use of private homes as places of worship, denied permission to two Christian religious groups to register and worship collectively.

In 1991 the Government began to reinforce the legitimacy of the hereditary monarchy and the observance of traditional and Muslim values by reasserting a national ideology known as the Melayu Islam Beraja (MIB) or "Malay Islamic Monarchy," the genesis of which reportedly dates from the 15th century. In 1993 the Government participated in issuing the Kuala Lumpur Declaration, which affirms the right of all persons to a wide range of human rights, including freedom of religion. Despite this and the constitutional provisions providing for the full and unconstrained exercise of religious freedom, the Government restricts the practice of non-Muslim religions by prohibiting proselytizing of Muslims; occasionally denying entry to foreign clergy or particular priests, bishops, or ministers; banning the importation of religious teaching materials or scriptures such as the Bible; and refusing permission to expand, repair, or build new churches, temples, or shrines.

The Government sporadically expresses concern about "outsiders" preaching radical Islamic fundamentalist or unorthodox beliefs. In 1995 the Government banned the Al-Arqam movement, a radical Islamic group; it has remained banned. Citizens deemed to have been influenced by such preaching (usually students returning from overseas study) have been "shown the error of their ways" in study seminars organized by mainstream Islamic religious leaders. Moreover, the Government readily investigates and takes proscriptive action against purveyors of radical Islam or "deviationist" Islamic groups.

A 1964 fatwa issued by the State Mufti, which strongly discourages Muslims from assisting non-Muslim organizations in perpetuating their faiths, has reportedly been used by the Ministry of Religious Affairs to influence other Brunei authorities to either deny non-Muslim religious organizations permission for a range of religious and administration activities, or to fail to respond to applications from these groups. Nonetheless, in 2002 two Christian churches and their associated schools were allowed, on safety grounds, to repair, expand, and renovate buildings on their sites.

The sole official Chinese temple must obtain permission for seasonal religious events and may not organize processions outside the bounds of its half-acre site. Christian organizations are subjected to the same restrictions on processions.

Proselytizing by faiths other than the officially sanctioned branch of Islam is not permitted. There are no missionaries working in the country.

The Government routinely censors magazine articles on other faiths, blacking out or removing photographs of crucifixes and other Christian religious symbols. Government officials also guard against the distribution and sale of items that feature undesirable photographs or religious symbols.

The Government requires residents to carry an identity card that states the bearer's religion; however, the Government no longer requires visitors to identify their religion on their landing cards.

Religious authorities regularly participate in raids to confiscate alcoholic beverages and to monitor restaurants and supermarkets to ensure conformity with "halal" practices such as Islamic requirements covering the slaughter of animals and the ban on pork products. The majority of citizens generally regard these actions as a means of upholding Islam.

The Ministry of Education requires courses on Islam or the MIB in all schools. It prohibits the teaching of other religions. As of January 2002, the Islamic Education Department of the Ministry of Religious Affairs was transferred to the Ministry of Education. The Ministry requires that all students, including non-Muslims, follow a course of study on the Islamic faith and learn the jawi (Arabic script). The International School of Brunei and the Jerudong International School are exempt from these restrictions. Private mission schools are not allowed to give Christian instruction and are required to give instruction about Islam; however, the Government does not prohibit or restrict parents from giving religious instruction to children in their own homes. In 2000 the Government responded to objections from parents and religious leaders and set aside tentative plans to require that more Islamic courses be taught in private, non-Islamic parochial schools.

Religious authorities encourage Muslim women to wear the tudong, a traditional head covering, and many women do so. However, some Muslim women do not and there is no official pressure on non-Muslim women to do so. In government schools, Muslim and non-Muslim female students must wear Muslim attire, including a head covering as a part of their "uniform." Muslim male students are expected to wear the songkok (hat).

In accordance with Koranic precepts, women are denied equal status with men in a number of important areas such as divorce, inheritance, and custody of children. In 2002 an amendment to the Brunei Nationality Act allowed citizenship to be transmitted through the mother, as well as through the father, of a child. Formerly it could be transmitted only through the father.

In July 1999, a new Married Women's Law came into effect, improving significantly the rights of non-Muslim married women with respect to maintenance, property, and domestic violence. A November 1999 revision of the Islamic Family Law, regarding women's position in marriage and divorce, has also strengthened the marital rights of Muslim women.

Muslims who wish to change or renounce their religion face considerable difficulties. Those born Muslim face official and societal pressure not to leave Islam. Permission from the Ministry of Religious Affairs must be obtained, and there were no reports of anyone requesting such permission. There were instances during the reporting period of persons, often foreign women, who converted to Islam as a prelude to marrying Muslims (as required by Brunei Islamic Law). If the marriages took place, these women faced intense official pressure not to return to their former religions, or were faced with unduly lengthy delays in obtaining permission to do so. There are also known cases of divorced Muslim converts who, because of official and societal pressure, remain officially Muslim although they would prefer to revert to their former faiths.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

In general those adhering to faiths other than Islam are allowed to practice their beliefs, provided that they exercise restraint and do not proselytize. Those non-Muslims who do proselytize have in the past been arrested or detained and sometimes held without charges for extended periods of time.

In late 2000 and early 2001, the Government used the Internal Security Act to detain at least seven Christians for allegedly subversive activities; they were not charged with a crime. Government officials maintained that the detentions were a security, not a religious, matter. The last of the detainees was released in October 2001 after taking an oath of allegiance to the Sultan. Two of the three released were Muslims who had converted to Christianity. After alleged intense official pressure during their detention, they reverted to Islam.

Agents of the Internal Security Department monitor religious services at Christian churches, and senior church members believe that they are under intermittent surveillance.

In 2000 the Government briefly detained for questioning local members of a small "deviationist" Islamic sect after the same sect in Malaysia reportedly was involved in military arms theft.

There were no new reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

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. While there are no reports of forced religious conversion, it is an accepted practice for the children of parents converting to Islam to be converted to Islam as well. There were reports in 2002 of teenaged children who resisted such conversion despite family and official pressure.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

The country's various religious groups coexist peacefully, but ecumenical interaction is hampered by the dominant Islamic religious ethos, which discourages Muslims from learning about other faiths. At the same time, Islamic authorities organize a range of activities to explain and propagate Islam, which they term "dialog" but which are in fact one-way exchanges.

The country's national philosophy, the Melayu Islam Beraja concept, discourages open-mindedness to religions other than Islam, and there are no programs to promote understanding of other religions. The country's indigenous people generally convert either to Islam or Christianity but rarely to Buddhism. Consequently, Muslim officials view Christianity as the main rival to official Islam. There is no reported dialog among government officials and their Christian and Buddhist counterparts.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy has increased contacts with all religious officials and continues to press the Brunei government to adhere to the spirit of its Constitution and its declarations on human rights.

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