The constitution designates Islam as the state religion but upholds the principle of secularism. It prohibits religious discrimination and provides for equality for all religions. On November 27, a Special Tribunal convicted and sentenced to death seven of eight defendants accused in the 2016 killings of 22 mostly non-Muslim individuals at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka, while the eighth was acquitted. Defense attorneys indicated they would appeal all verdicts. The government continued to provide guidance to imams throughout the country on the content of their sermons in its stated effort to prevent militancy and monitor mosques for “provocative” messaging. Members of religious minorities, including Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians, who were sometimes also members of ethnic minorities, stated the government remained ineffective in preventing forced evictions and land seizures stemming from land disputes. The government continued to place law enforcement personnel at religious sites, festivals, and events considered possible targets for violence.
In October protesters clashed with police and attacked a Hindu temple in response to the October 20 arrests of two Muslims in Bhola, who were accused of hacking the Facebook account of a Hindu student in an extortion scheme. There were more than 100 injuries in the clash, and police killed four persons in what they stated was self-defense. In August, according to multiple press reports, police found the body of Buddhist monk Amrita Nanda, vice principal of Gyanaratna Buddhist Monastery, under a railway bridge in Comilla, approximately 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Dhaka. According to media accounts, Nanda’s throat was slit. Buddhist community members said Nanda was returning to his hometown from Dhaka. The Christian Welfare Trust and other human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported harassment, communal threats of physical violence, and social isolation for Christians who converted to Christianity from Hinduism and Islam. The Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council (BHCUC) said “atrocities” against minorities continued, but had slowed.
In meetings with government officials and in public statements, the Ambassador and other U.S. embassy representatives spoke out against acts of violence in the name of religion, and encouraged the government to uphold the rights of minority religious groups and foster a climate of tolerance. The embassy successfully urged government officials not to charge a Hindu activist with sedition. The Ambassador and other embassy staff met with local government officials, civil society members, NGOs, and religious leaders to continue to underscore the importance of religious tolerance and explore the link among religion, religious freedom, and violent extremism. Since 2017, the U.S. government has provided more than $669 million in humanitarian assistance to overwhelmingly Muslim ethnic Rohingya who fled, and continued to flee, Burma.
The constitution recognizes Buddhism as the state’s “spiritual heritage,” provides for freedom of religion, and bans discrimination based on religious belief. The constitution states religious institutions and personalities shall remain “above politics.” The law restricts religious speech promoting enmity among religious groups and requires religious groups to obtain licenses to hold public religious gatherings. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report that the lack of clarity in the law addressing “inducements” to conversion placed the activities of minority religious groups at risk of legal sanction by the government. Churches that applied for registration continued to await approval from the government’s Commission for Religious Organizations (CRO). As a result, there were only two registered non-Buddhist religious groups in the country, while registered Buddhist groups increased from 110 to 125. Hindu leaders cited continued support for the construction of Hindu temples, including a major project in the capital. NGOs reported that unregistered religious groups continued to be able to worship in private, but were unable to organize publicly, own property, raise funds, conduct outreach activities, or import literature. A representative of the NGO Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) said the legal framework providing government patronage and protection of Buddhism worked against other faiths, including Christianity and Hinduism. International Christian NGO Open Doors continued to list the country on its World Watch List, stating the government was intent on maintaining a strong national identity and unity by suppressing outside influences, including Christianity. Pastors cited their most significant challenge to be acquiring permanent Christian burial plots. According to Open Doors, the government has not officially recognized any churches, which led the organization to conclude that Christians in the country “are technically worshipping illegally.” Open Doors in its 2020 World Watch List reported, “No Christian congregation has ever been allowed to build a church structure,” and, “All Christian fellowship remains underground.” The India-based Hindu religious organization Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), an affiliate of the Hindu advocacy group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), said that the minority Hindu community faced discrimination. The RSS itself said that it was not aware of any problems facing Hindus in the country, and commented that relations between Hindus and Buddhists were good. Leaders from the Hindu Dharmic Samudai, one of eight religious organizations on the board of the Commission for Religious Organizations, said Hindus and Buddhists enjoyed close ties. The organization cited strong official support for Hindu religious practice, including royal support for the construction of Hindu temples and participation in Hindu religious ceremonies and festivals.
NGOs reported continuing societal pressure on individuals to participate in Buddhist traditions and practices. Open Doors said Christians faced discrimination in their personal and professional lives and rated persecution of Christians to be “very high.” Open Doors also reported in its World Watch List 2020 report, “For [Christian] converts, family members are by far the strongest sources of persecution.” According to Open Doors, Christian students were forced to participate in Buddhist rituals and Christian farmers were excluded from communal planting and harvesting.
The United States does not have formal diplomatic relations with the country or a diplomatic presence there. During periodic visits, officers from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi engaged with a wide range of both government and nongovernment figures on issues relating to freedom of religious practice and the treatment of religious minorities.
The constitution states that while the official religion is the Shafi’i School of Islam, all other religions may be practiced “in peace and harmony.” In April the government implemented the second and third phases of the Sharia Penal Code (SPC), which includes offenses punishable by corporal and capital punishments, including stoning to death, amputation of hands or feet, and caning. The SPC, which is in force in parallel with the common-law-based secular penal code, applies to both Muslims and non-Muslims, including foreigners, with non-Muslims exempted from certain sections. Under full SPC implementation, Royal Brunei Police Force (RBPF) and Religious Enforcement Division officers cooperate on investigations of crimes covered by both secular law and sharia. Following international condemnation, the sultan announced in May that the de facto moratorium on the death penalty would be extended to include cases under the SPC and that “individual privacy” would be respected. He also declared the government would ratify the United Nations Convention against Torture (UNCAT). Responding to UN expressions of concern regarding the SPC, the foreign minister reiterated that the constitution recognizes the right of non-Muslims to practice their religions “in peace and harmony.” Non-Muslims reported no significant changes with respect to the practice of minority religions following the full implementation of the SPC but noted that the law imposes new restrictions on the ability of non-Muslims to proselytize other non-Muslims, which until April had been legal. The government continued to prohibit non-Muslims from proselytizing among Muslims or persons with no religious affiliation. In October sharia courts charged non-Muslim defendants in two criminal cases. The government permitted Shafi’i Muslims and members of non-Muslim religious minorities to practice their faiths but continued to ban several religious groups it considers “deviant.” The sultan publicly warned the government to strengthen its stance against deviation from what he called authentic Islamic teachings. Government limitations on the construction of new churches and temples, and the renovations or expansion of existing places of worship, resulted in facilities that were too small to accommodate some congregations. Islamic authorities organized a range of proselytizing activities and incentives to explain and propagate Islam.
Non-Muslims and Muslims faced social pressure to conform to Islamic guidelines regarding behavior. According to media reports and sources within the country, although some members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community worried that new SPC laws would encourage homophobia, few believed that the harshest SPC punishments, such as stoning, would be enforced. In discussions of religion and religious freedom on social media, some Muslims and non-Muslims posted comments questioning the relevance of the Malay Islamic Monarchy (MIB) national philosophy or criticizing the SPC, while others called for increased Islamification and increased restrictions on non-Muslims. Anecdotal reports indicated that some Muslims and Christians who wished to convert to another religion feared social retribution, such as ostracism by friends, family, and their community.
The Ambassador, other embassy officers, and visiting senior U.S. government officials engaged with senior government officials regarding the negative religious freedom implications of full SPC implementation, as well as the importance of ratification of UNCAT and the protection of minority rights. In meetings with senior economic officials and business leaders, the Ambassador highlighted U.S. concerns relating to the SPC, including those of the private sector. He also met with minority religious leaders to discuss the concerns of religious minorities regarding the implications of the SPC. The Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs echoed concerns regarding implementation of the SPC during a visit in September.