There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom by the government during the reporting period. The government continued its restrictions on the religious freedom of non-Muslims, as well as Muslims who did not belong to the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam. The government continued to favor the propagation of Shafi’i beliefs and practices, particularly through public events and the education system. Non-Muslims and non-Shafi’i Muslims were prohibited from receiving religious education in schools but religious education in private settings like the home was tolerated. Non-Muslims also faced social and sometimes official pressure to conform to Islamic guidelines on behavior and were forbidden to proselytize. The government maintained a ban on a number of groups it considered “deviant.” Across denominational lines non-Muslim religious leaders stated that they were subjected to undue influence and duress, and some were threatened with fines and/or imprisonment. There were reports of harassment of clergy, opening of mail, and prohibitions on receiving religious texts for use in schools or houses of worship. In addition, government security agents reportedly monitored churches. Muslims remained subject to the government’s interpretation of Sharia (Islamic law). During the year, the sultan repeatedly called for the establishment of criminal Sharia law and the government reportedly was working on implementing it in the near future.
Despite constitutional provisions providing for religious freedom, the government restricted, to varying degrees, the religious practices of all religious groups other than the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam. Proselytizing by any group other than the official Shafi’i sect was prohibited. The government maintained strict customs controls on the importation of non-Islamic religious texts such as Bibles, as well as on Islamic religious teaching materials or scriptures intended for sale or distribution.
Anyone who teaches or promotes any “deviant” beliefs or practices in public may be charged under the Islamic Religious Council Act and punished with three months’ incarceration and a fine of BND 2,000 ($1,550).
The government periodically warned the population about “outsiders” preaching radical Islamic fundamentalist or unorthodox beliefs and also warned Muslims against Christian evangelists.
The government routinely censored magazine articles on other faiths, blacking out or removing photographs of crucifixes and other Christian religious symbols. Government officials also restricted the distribution and sale of items that feature photographs of religious symbols.
There were credible reports that agents of the government’s internal security department monitored religious services at Christian churches and that senior church members and leaders were under surveillance.
The government required residents to carry identity cards that stated the bearer’s ethnicity, which were used in part to determine whether they were Muslim and thus subject to Sharia. Ethnic Malays generally were assumed to be Muslim. Non-Muslims were not held accountable to Sharia precepts, and religious authorities checked identity cards for ethnicity when conducting raids against suspected violators of Sharia. Visitors to the country were asked to identify their religion on their visa applications, and foreign Muslims were subject to Sharia precepts; however, many persons did not identify their faith and were not challenged.
Authorities continued to arrest persons for offenses under Sharia, such as khalwat (close proximity between the sexes) and consumption of alcohol. Although there were reports of khalwat cases of foreign workers during immigration enforcement raids, no official statistics on such cases were available. Government officials reported that in many cases, khalwat charges were dropped before prosecution due to lack of evidence. Most of those detained for a first offense were fined and released, although in previous years, some persons were imprisoned for up to four months for repeated offenses of khalwat. Men are subject to a BND 1,000 ($775) fine and women to a BND 500 ($385) fine if convicted of khalwat.
Throughout 2011, the sultan repeatedly called for the establishment of Islamic criminal law. Newspapers carried articles promoting Islamic law, and the government reported that various ministries and parties would participate in its establishment. The sultan also proposed the possibility of a parallel system with both Islamic and civil law.
Religious authorities regularly participated in raids to confiscate alcoholic beverages and non-halal meats brought into the country without proper customs clearance. They also monitored restaurants and supermarkets to ensure conformity with halal practices. Restaurants and service employees that served Muslims in daylight hours during Ramadan were fined. Religious authorities allowed non-halal restaurants and non-halal sections in supermarkets to operate without interference.
The Ministry of Education (MOE) required courses on Islam and the MIB in all schools that adhered to the state curriculum. Most school textbooks were illustrated to portray Islam as the norm, and often all women and girls were shown wearing the Islamic head covering. There were no depictions of other religions’ practices in textbooks. The MOE prohibited the teaching of other religions and comparative religious studies. In January 2010 the sultan decreed that religious education would be mandatory for Muslim students. As a result, private schools were required to teach Islam and made Ugama instruction mandatory on an extracurricular, after-hours basis for their Muslim students. Ugama is a six-year education course that teaches Sunni Islam according to the Shafi’i school.
Schools, including private schools, could be fined or school officials imprisoned for teaching non-Islamic religious subjects. In previous years, Christian students at a private school offering Islamic instruction during regular school hours were allowed to attend Christian religious instruction during periods when Muslim students received Islamic instruction. The government has not revised its position regarding the teaching of non-Islamic religious courses to non-Islamic students. However, the government did not prohibit or restrict parents from providing religious instruction for children in private settings like the home.
There was no legal requirement for women to wear head coverings in public; however, social customs were reinforced by religious authorities to encourage Muslim women to wear the tudong, a traditional head covering, and many women did so. In government schools and at institutes of higher learning, Muslim and non-Muslim female students must wear Islamic attire, including a head covering, as a part of their uniform. Male students were expected to wear the songkok (hat) although this was not required in all schools.
Marriage between Muslims and non-Muslims was not permitted, and non-Muslims must convert to Islam if they wish to marry a Muslim. According to the latest government statistics available, there were 575 conversions to Islam in 2010.
Muslims may convert legally to another religion; however, they often faced significant official and societal pressure not to convert. Permission from the MRA must be obtained before converting from Islam.
The government offered financial incentives for conversion to Islam. If parents converted to Islam, there was often family and official pressure for the children to do the same. However, the law states that the conversion of children is not automatic and a person must be at least 14 years old to make such a commitment.