With increasing restrictions on religious freedom, tighter control over Christians and no evidence of concern for minority faiths, the Islamic state of Brunei remains one of the hardest places in the world to be a Christian.
In January 2013, the Sultan announced preparations for an “Islamic Criminal Law,” which according to Open Doors, would “complicate the situation for the Christian minority further, especially those known to have converted.”
Earlier, in March 2011, the Brunei Times reported from the Sultan’s speech to the nation about the introduction of the law. He said: “Are we eligible to be free from the torment of Allah (SWT) as stated in Allah’s Firman that says whoever does not provide appropriate punishment laid out by Allah … those people belong to the Kafir (infidel).”
According to the report, the Sultan believes that the nation is always on the brink of risking the warnings provided by the above Surah, because in the areas of laws, Brunei has only fulfilled half of the requirements from Hukum Sharak – a reference to Sharia law. His speech encapsulated the clearly stated vision of the nation to operate out of a strict Islamic law that inadvertently limits the will of its own people and restricts the freedom of minority faiths in the nation.
In Brunei, it is illegal for a Muslim to convert to another faith, despite a constitution that provides for religious freedom. Most Christians in Brunei are expatriates and migrants, who are allowed to practice their faith, but it is illegal to share it with Malays, the major people group in Brunei. Any contact with Christians in other countries, the import of Bibles and the public celebration of Christmas are all banned in the Islamic state. If a Malay converts to another faith they are immediately scheduled for re-education to Islam.
The government only recognizes three Catholic and three Anglican churches, despite a 10 percent Christian population amounting to more than 40,000 Christians. Any other churches are required to register, but applications are regularly met with the indifferent hand of bureaucracy. Unregistered churches are considered “illegal sects” and are vulnerable to legal consequences.
Registered churches are watched closely, with government informants quietly attending worship services. Churches are not allowed to receive seekers or converts from the local population, most of whom are Malay and whose citizenship is equated with their identity as Muslims. Violations of these restrictions could result in the closure of churches or possible imprisonment for the Pastor.
No foreign Christian workers are permitted; Christians face regular discrimination in the workplace and remain ineligible for top positions in the government. Christian bookshops are not allowed and it is difficult to get access to any theological training. Although there are six Christian schools, they regularly faced pressure to remove Bible studies from the curriculum. Now, the only religious instruction in all schools, including the Christian schools, is on Islam alone.
The bent of the law against religious minorities permeates through the culture and society. It is not uncommon for Malays who leave Islam to face social persecution and hostility from their family, friends and neighbors, who would rather reject one of their own than have to face the consequences of the law and the shame of housing an apostate.
Invulnerable to International Pressure
Brunei is governed as a Constitutional Sultanate, locally known as Malay Islamic Monarchy, where Islamic law has been in full force since 2011. The monarchy is seen as a defender of the faith. There are no elections since the monarchy is hereditary and the same family has ruled the nation for six centuries.
Brunei’s absolute monarchy, natural resources and economic strength make it nearly invulnerable to international pressure. It has its heart set on imposing Sharia law to the fullest extent and appears unwilling to provide its citizens with the freedom to choose their own religion, an idea that is perceived as a threat to national identity and security.
Despite the severe restrictions and the hostile conditions for anyone who leaves Islam, there have been reports of people turning to Christ. However, it is only a sliver of good news in a nation that holds little hope for the exercise of religious freedom among its own people. Without realistic avenues for international intervention, Brunei is left to itself; controlling its people through fear and intimidation.