On April 30, Sharia Law took effect in Brunei, a tiny country of just over 420,000 people nestled in Southeast Asia. The nation, which is governed under an absolute monarchy system led by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah for almost 47 years, has been using Islamic laws to regulate civil affairs such as personal and family issues. Now, Sharia law will also be enforced against criminal offenses.
Within the penal code, severe bodily punishments will be introduced as punishments for various crimes. They include flogging for adultery, cutting off limbs for theft, and stoning to death for rape and sodomy. It has, however, been announced that these punishments will not begin to be implemented for at least one year. Before April of 2015, authorities have stated that they will only implement the new law for lesser offences that are punishable by fines and imprisonment, such as for eating or drinking in public during the fasting month.
The new law affects Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Christians, who make up 8.7 percent of the population, are very concerned with these new developments. Even without the Sharia laws, church leaders in particular have already been heavily monitored by the government.
In February, Sharia Law experts from the Ministry of Religious Affairs announced that non-Muslims could be punished for wearing indecent clothing that disgraces Islam. The offender could be jailed for up to six months, fined for up to BN $2,000 (US $1,600), or sentenced to both. Even now, it is mandatory for women of all religions-including Christians-to wear hijab (head covering) if they work for the government or are attending official functions. But, according to the Diplomat, it will only be after the Sharia penal code is put in place that violations against religious instruction will be criminalized.
The new law also prohibits all Muslim parents from surrendering their children into the care of non-Muslims. The act is punishable by up to five years in prison, a maximum fine of BN $20,000 (US $15,600), or both.
In addition, converts from Islam face losing custody of their children 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,” according to 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. This new law has a profound impact on the few but influential Christian schools. The presence of many non-Christian children complicates the school’s practice of starting each day by reading the Word of God. “Even now, parents have started demanding that we begin every gathering with a Muslim prayer instead,” said a school official. While not necessarily leading people to Christ, exposure to Christian teachings can effectively plant seeds of religious tolerance in children.
The penal code also cites that non-Muslims can no longer share their faiths with Muslims and atheists. Offenders risk being fined of up to BN $20,000 (US $15,600), sent to jail for five years at most, or both. “How can we reach out to tribal people who practice animistic religions?” asked an evangelical pastor. “They are considered atheists by the government.”
With this new law taking effect, attempts to propagate Islam are becoming more aggressive and persistent. The few remaining indigenous churches on the isolated island have been the daily targets of dakwa (Islamic evangelism) by local imams (religious teachers). In addition, many Christian immigrants have been reported to trade their faith for a work permit.
Following the lead of neighboring Malaysia, the Sharia Law in Brunei claims that 19 words belong solely to Islam. Christians are banned from using words like Allah (God) and Firman Allah (God’s Word), which are found in the Malay language Bible commonly used by Bruneians. As Christian materials cannot be brought into the country, local language Bibles will be increasingly difficult to obtain.
It is difficult to predicting how quickly and to what extent these laws will impact Christians. The government admittedly lacks the infrastructure to support Sharia Law, but there is a large budget to shore up the specialized judicial system and enable the enforcement of Sharia Law within a couple of years.
By then, the above scenarios could become the reality for many believers in Brunei, which already ranks 24th in the World Watch List of the top 50 countries where Christians are most oppressed. Their freedom will be dramatically reduced, and the likelihood of being charged under the Sharia Law will significantly increase. Christian schools and mission-minded churches will have to apply more caution and tact in outreach to avoid breaching the anti-propagation law. As a result, secret believers will be further isolated due to the churches’ intensified fear of the government.
In the face of looming challenges, pastors have asked for a simple prayer; “We pray day and night that the laws won’t push through. But if they do, please pray that God will help us work through this obstacle-not around it, not over it, but through it.”
Father, we praise You for raising up Your church in Brunei. Many of us know little of this nation and her people, but You know them and have called many there out of darkness into the light of the gospel. We pray against the implementation of Sharia Law, that You would foil their attempts to destroy Your church there, to destroy the work of Christ in her midst. But even in the midst of these new, harsh laws we pray that You would protect Your church, that her members would remain true to Christ in the face of pressure to return to Islam. What the government would use to destroy, we pray that You would use to grow Your church and bring glory to Your name. Enable the Christians to grow strong in the knowledge of Your Wordnthat their faith would increase. Teach them when to speak boldly and when to be silent and do Your work in secret. Show them how they might continue to minister to the tribal people. In the midst of this new persecution, we pray that You would “strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.” In the name of Jesus whose Spirit remains in them, in us. Amen.