BRUNEI is a small country with a population of only about 400,000, of whom 67% are Muslims, 13% Buddhists, 10% Christians and 10% other religions.
Do the one third of non-Muslims in that country still enjoy religious freedom?
There are three churches in Brunei, and in their day-to-day lives, the Christians do feel the impact of the hudud law.
There had been calls on social media earlier for the city hall of Miri, just across the western border in Sarawak, to demolish a church
The news was carried prominently in the Malaysian media.
The Bruneian netizens had claimed that the church did not care for the feelings of Muslims on the other side of the border, and that it was disrespectful, displaying banners in praise of Jesus and God.
When the Sin Chew Daily team arrived at a local Chinese restaurant to buy food, we met an old Christian couple from Sarawak, who had lived in Brunei for 55 years.
We started to talk about the conditions of Christians in the oil-rich Sultanate.
They told us there were only three larger churches in Brunei, namely St Andrew’s (Anglican), St George’s (Catholic) and St John’s in Kuala Belait.
“The government will no longer issue new permits for the construction of churches but the ones completed earlier can still be retained,” they said.
The one the old couple attend is not an independent church building but a shophouse-type meeting hall.
They said while these meeting halls were allowed to remain, they could not apply to expand into full-fledged churches.
In other words, there are only three independent church buildings in the country and the number will not be increased.
We travelled to Bandar Seri Begawan to visit St Andrew’s and St George’s, both within a stone’s throw from each other on a side street diagonally opposite the Islamic criminal court.
While a cross was seen on top of both buildings, there were no religious banners on the external walls or any place visible from outside the buildings.
At St George’s, we could see many Catholics attending Friday mass inside while St Andrew’s, being an Anglican church, was all quiet.
The couple told us local Christians were allowed to hold low-key Christmas celebrations inside the churches or at homes, but not outdoors or at a shopping mall. Christmas decorations and sending greeting cards are seen as offensive to Muslims and against the country’s law.
Non-Muslims are prohibited by law to preach to Muslims or atheists.
Offenders can be fined up to B$20,000 (RM60,000) or up to five years’ imprisonment, or both.
The Brunei government has also listed 19 terms for the exclusive use of Muslims only, and Christians are not allowed to use the Malay version of the Bible.
Currently, there is only one Chinese temple recognised by the government: the over 100-year-old Tokong China in the city centre.
Other than that, local residents told us there is another unregistered resident-type Buddhist altar which could be closed down anytime if someone were to report it to enforcement authorities.
“This is the only Chinese temple here, a 100-year-old relic permanently protected under the order of the previous Sultan.
“Because of the royal order, this temple has been able to survive,” a local Chinese told us.
Similarly, no permits for the construction of new Chinese temples will be issued by the government.
In the meantime, a Bruneian Muslim told Sin Chew Daily they were also not allowed to celebrate Valentine’s Day and many youngsters have the wrong impression that Valentine’s is a Christian festival.
In addition, Muslim parents are banned from entrusting their children into the care of non-Muslim families.
As for non-Muslim parents, many are worried that if their children get converted, they might lose the custodial rights of their children. — Sin Chew Daily/Asia News Network