By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife with BosNewsLife Asia Service
BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, BRUNEI (BosNewsLife)– Brunei’s devoted Christians face a potential crackdown after the sultan introduced harsh Islamic punishments, including flogging and stoning to death, but Western nations appear reluctant to intervene.
“I place my faith in and am grateful to Allah the Almighty to announce that [since] Thursday May 1, 2014, we will see the enforcement of Sharia law phase one, to be followed by the other phases,” said Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, leader of the country’s absolute monarchy government for nearly 47 years.
It is not clear when and if the law will impact commercial relations with key trading partners Netherlands and Britain, despite concerns raised within the United Nations.
The two countries have a lion’s share of Brunei’s foreign direct investment from the European Union, totalling $1.2 billion in 2011, according to official estimates.
Last year shortly before her abdication, Dutch Queen Beatrix was on a two-day visit to Brunei, focusing on expanding economic relations despite warnings about the reported increased persecution of minority Christians in the gas and oil rich Islamic mini-state.
Accompanied by her son Willem-Alexander and his wife Máxima, who soon after became king and queen, as well as a trade delegation of Dutch companies, Beatrix was laughing when meeting Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah in what is the world’s largest palace.
With energy giant Shell hoping to extend its foot print in Brunei’s extensive oil and gas fields, the monarch did not make comments on religious rights.
Netherlands-based Open Doors, a respected advocacy and aid group supporting reportedly persecuted Christians, said the law is expected to “complicate the situation for the Christian minority further, especially those known to have converted.”
The new Islamic penalties, expected to be introduced within the next two years, will eventually include severe bodily punishments including flogging for adultery, cutting of limbs for theft, and stoning to death for rape and sodomy, according to sources familiar with the law.
Its first phase includes measures for offences against eating or drinking in public during Islam’s fasting month, which are punishable by fines and imprisonment.
Rights activists have expressed concern that parts of the law also apply to non-Muslims, including Christians, in the Southeast Asian nation.
Already in February, Sharia law experts from the Ministry of Religious Affairs reportedly announced that non-Muslims could be punished for wearing “indecent clothing” that “disgraces Islam”. The offender could be jailed for up to six months and/or fined up to $1,600 in local currency under the new law.
Christians say it is already mandatory for all women, including Christian believers, to wear a ‘hijab’ as the head covering is known, if they work for the government or are attending official functions.
The new penal code also cites that non-Muslims can no longer speak about their faith with Muslims and atheists. Offenders are at risk of being fined of up to about $15,600 and/or being sent to jail for up to five years.
Another restriction aimed at Christians who converted from a Muslim background includes a law that prohibits any Muslim parents from letting non-Muslims care for their child.
LONG JAIL TERM
The act is punishable by a jail term of up to five years, a fine of up to $ 15,600, or both, Christians familiar with the law said.
Consequently, people who convert to Christianity can lose custody of their child should their new faith come to light.
“All parental rights are awarded to the Muslim parent if a child is born to mixed-faith parents and the non-Muslim parent is not recognized in any official document, including the child’s birth certificate,” wrote the US Department of State in the 2012 International Religious Freedom Report.
Teaching other religions outside Islam to a child of Muslims or atheists carries the same punishment, experts said.
“Because of this, the few Christian schools will receive a setback as many of their students are non-Christians. The school day normally begins with a reading from the Bible,” commented World Watch Monitor (WWM), the Open Doors news service.
“Even now, parents have started demanding that we begin every gathering with a Muslim prayer instead,” WWM quoted an unnamed school official as saying.
“What’s more, once Sharia law takes effect, the restriction may be extended to daycare services operated by non-Muslims. The new penal code also cites that non-Muslims can no longer share their faith with Muslims and atheists. Offenders are at risk of being fined of up to $ 15,600) sent to jail for
five years at most, or both.”
Additionally, following the lead of neighboring Malaysia, the penal code claims 19 words to belong solely to Islam.
Local Christians are banned from using words such as Allah and Firman Allah which are found in the Malay language Bible commonly used by Bruneians as a reference to “God” and “God’s Word” respectively, observers said.
Christian materials also cannot be brought into the country.
“Brunei’s decision to implement criminal Sharia law is a huge step backwards for human rights in the country. It constitutes an authoritarian move towards brutal medieval punishments that have no place in the modern, 21st century world,” claimed Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division
at Human Rights Watch, in published remarks.
Yet, “The extent to which the laws may affect non-Muslims is hard to predict given the fact that it is early in the implementation stage,” WWM argued.
“The government admits lacking the infrastructure to support Sharia law. For one, there is a shortage of specialized judges in Sharia courts. However, with a budget of $ 1.5 million for the 2014-15 fiscal year, it is only a matter of time before it puts the system in order.”
Christians fear Sharia law can eventually easily be enforced to the small Bruneian population of over 420,000 people.
“By then, the above scenarios could become the reality of many Christians in Brunei, which ranks as the 24th most difficult country to be a Christian, in an annual list of 50 countries on the World Watch List” of Open Doors, WWM warned.
The legislation comes amid a wider crackdown on Christian activities, according to investigators
“Churches must register, but requests are frequently ignored by officials,” said Open Doors, which has close contacts with local Christians, in a recent report.
“Registered churches are closely monitored and services are attended by government informants. They are prohibited from taking in seekers [in the Christian faith] and converts from the local population,” the group added.
Those who violate the rules reportedly face church closure and possible imprisonment for the pastor. “Because of these restrictions, believers from a Muslim background are often isolated and neglected,” Open Doors explained.
“Christians face discrimination in the workplace and are ineligible for top positions in the government.”
Additionally, “No foreign Christian workers are permitted” Open Doors said, referring to for instance missionaries, while “importing Bibles and Christian literature is illegal for ministry”, though “not for personal purposes.”
Locals in the state people have little opportunity to learn about Christianity, with religious instruction in all schools, including the six Christian schools, in Islam alone, Christians said.
“Most Christians in Brunei are expatriates and migrants are allowed to practice their faith, but not no share it with Malays, the major people group in Brunei,” Open Doors noted.
It is part of wider policy of the sultan who in 1991 introduced the conservative ideology ‘Malay Muslim Monarchy’, which presented the monarchy as the defender of the faith.
The ideology was also seen as pre-empting calls for democratization and critics have said it alienated Brunei’s large Chinese and expatriate communities, many of whom are Christians.
(BosNewsLife (2004-2014) is the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians. It has been ‘Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals’ since May 2004).
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