International Religious Freedom Report 2004
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

The Constitution states, "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-Shafeite and non-Islamic religious practice.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. Practitioners of non-Muslim faiths are not allowed to proselytize, and Christian-based schools must give instruction in the Islamic faith to all students and are not allowed to teach Christianity. The Government uses a range of municipal and planning laws and other legislation to restrict the expansion of all religions other than official Islam. In September 2003, the Government detained several Muslims for attempting to revive the radical Al-Arqam movement, previously banned in 1995. The Government did not release the names of the detainees, and they were still in detention at the end of the period covered by this report.

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 "dialogue" but which are in fact one-way exchanges.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of approximately 2,200 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 is Muslim, 13 percent is Buddhist, 10 percent is Christian, and another 10 percent adheres to indigenous beliefs or other faiths. Approximately 20 percent of the population is ethnic Chinese, of which approximately half is Christian (Anglicans, Catholics, and Methodists) and half is Buddhist. There also is a large workforce composed mainly of 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, "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, and non-Shafeite practices are restricted.

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 the country has several Chinese temples, only one, in the capital, is registered officially. 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

The Government continued to use zoning laws that prohibit the use of private homes as places of worship, and in 2003 it 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 declaration 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 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 remained banned during the period covered by this report. 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, reportedly has been used by the Ministry of Religious Affairs to influence other government authorities either to 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, two Christian churches and their associated schools have been allowed, on safety grounds, to repair, expand, and renovate buildings on their sites and to carry out minor building works.

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. In the first 6 months of 2004, the Government appeared more tolerant of celebrations to mark the Chinese Lunar New Year, allowing more dragon dances and other New Year festivities that it had previously discouraged.

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.

During the period covered by this report, conservative Islam appeared to be gaining in influence, grounded in government plans to incorporate the country's civil law into an overarching Shari'a Islamic code, expected to be completed by the end of 2004. The authorities have begun enforcing Shari'a regulations, such as arresting 46 Muslims in April for not performing Friday prayers. Thirty-two of those arrested were foreigners working in the country. The offenders were fined and later released. There was a marked increase in the number of arrests for other offenses under Shari'a law, such as "khalwat" and consumption of alcohol. The arresting forces in these crackdowns on errant Muslims are comprised of civilian police and religious enforcers.

Religious authorities regularly participate in raids to confiscate alcoholic beverages and non-halal meats. They also monitor restaurants and supermarkets to ensure conformity with halal practice. Restaurants and service employees that serve a Muslim in daylight hours during the fasting month are subject to fines.

The Ministry of Education requires courses on Islam or the MIB in all schools. It prohibits the teaching of other religions. In 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 January, under its integrated education plan to combine religious and academic education, the Ministry of Education introduced a pilot scheme in 38 government primary schools that requires the compulsory study of Arabic by all students.

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 of a child as well as through the father. 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, also strengthened the marital rights of Muslim women. In 2003, Muslim women's rights in divorce, outlined in the 1999 order with respect to property and maintenance, were further reinforced allowing women to sue ex-husbands in Shari'a Court for half of marital property. The court can also garnish salaries of ex-husbands who refuse to pay maintenance.

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 period covered by this report of persons, often foreign women, who converted to Islam as a prelude to marrying Muslims (as required by the country's Islamic law). If the marriages took place, these women faced intense official pressure not to return to their former religions, or were faced with extraordinary 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 proselytize have in the past been arrested or detained and sometimes held without charges for extended periods of time. Agents of the Internal Security Department monitor religious services at Christian churches, and senior church members believe that they are under intermittent surveillance.

In September 2003, the Government used the Internal Security Act to detain six members of the banned radical Al-Arquam movement. The Government warned its citizens against involvement in any group that practices teachings that "deviate" from the country's official religion. The six were still in detention at the end of the period covered by this report.

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.

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. However, 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.

Abuses by Terrorist Organizations

There were no reported abuses targeted at specific religions by terrorist organizations during the period covered by this report.

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 "dialogue" but 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. More than 100 indigenous persons converted to Christianity during the period covered by this report, while a larger number converted to Islam. Consequently, Muslim officials view Christianity as the main rival to official Islam. There is no reported dialogue between 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 in dialogues with government officials. Embassy representatives continue to press the Government to adhere to the spirit of its Constitution and its declarations on human rights. The Embassy is developing public diplomacy programs to increase the level of interaction with Bruneians on religious freedom issues.

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