Although the constitution protects religious freedom, other laws and policies restrict this right. The constitution states that the religion of the country shall be the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam but allows all other religions to be practiced in peace and harmony by the person professing them in any part of the country. Laws and policies place restrictions on religious groups that do not adhere to the Shafi’i school. Laws and regulations generally limit access to religious literature and public religious gatherings for non-Muslims.
The Sharia (Shyariah) Penal Code Order, published in October, introduced a number of new or changed laws that, while not yet implemented, significantly affect the legal structures governing religious freedom in the country. These include new, expanded, or more severe restrictions on the right of individuals to hold or change their religious beliefs; on “offensive” speech, such as deriding the Quran; and on religious expression, including religious teaching without written approval, proselytism, religious publishing, and the ability to speak freely about one’s religious beliefs. Some elements of the order are similar to earlier laws, but others are new or are applicable to a larger portion of the population, including both Muslims and non-Muslims in many cases. The new laws feature more severe penalties, including the death penalty, for example, in cases of adultery or mocking the Prophet Muhammed. The laws are scheduled to be implemented in stages beginning in April 2014. The manner and method of implementation of the new law, which exists in parallel with and overlaps the existing common law, is not yet clear.
The government describes the country as a Malay Islamic Monarchy and actively promotes adherence by its Muslim residents to Islamic values and traditions. The Ministry of Religious Affairs (MORA) is responsible for propagating and reinforcing Shafi’i beliefs and practices as well as enforcing Sharia laws. It is not yet clear how MORA and the attorney general’s office will coordinate the Sharia Penal Code Order and common law enforcement once the new laws are implemented.
Under the current law, Muslims may convert legally to another religion but must first obtain permission from the MORA. The Sharia Penal Code Order criminalizes apostasy from Islam without prior approval, with a possible death penalty for those who do not repent. 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.
The law requires all organizations to register and provide the names of their members. The registrar of societies oversees the application process, exercises discretion over applications, and is authorized to refuse approval for any reason. Unregistered organizations can face charges of unlawful assembly and are subject to fines. Individuals who participate in or influence others to join unregistered organizations can be fined, arrested, and imprisoned.
The government bans several religious groups that it considers deviant, including Al-Arqam, Abdul Razak Mohammad, Al-Ma’unah, Saihoni Taispan, Tariqat Mufarridiyyah, Silat Lintau, Qadiyaniah, and the Bahai Faith. Anyone who teaches or promotes any “deviant” beliefs or practices in public may be charged under the current law and punished with three months’ incarceration and a fine of BND 2,000 ($1,595). The Sharia Penal Code Order, depending on implementation, significantly expands the scope of this law and the potential punishment for conviction. For crimes such as propagating religions other than Islam the penalty is five years in prison and a fine of BND 20,000 ($15,950).
A fatwa issued by the state mufti strongly discourages Muslims from assisting non-Muslim religious groups in propagating their faiths. The MORA reportedly uses the fatwa to influence other government authorities either to deny non-Shafi’i religious groups permission for a range of religious and administrative activities or not to respond to applications from these groups. Christian churches and associated schools have been allowed, for safety reasons, to repair and renovate buildings on their sites, but the approval process is often lengthy and difficult.
The government reinforces the legitimacy of the hereditary monarchy and the observance of traditional and Islamic values by promoting a national ideology known as the Melayu Islam Beraja (MIB), or Malay Islamic Monarchy, claiming its superiority over other religious and social belief systems. MIB principles are the basis of civic life. All government meetings and ceremonies commence with a Muslim prayer. When attending citizenship ceremonies, non-Muslims must wear the local national dress, including head coverings for men and women.
The law mandates that all Muslim children aged seven to fifteen residing in the country must be enrolled in Islamic religious education, including in private schools. The law propagates the officially recognized Shafi’i school and does not make accommodations for Muslims who have non-Shafi’i beliefs. Ugama instruction (a six-year course that teaches Sunni Islam according to the Shafi’i school) is mandatory on an extracurricular, after-hours basis for Muslim students. Muslim parents who fail to enroll their children in religious school face a BND 5,000 ($4,000) fine.
Schools, including private schools, can be fined or school officials imprisoned for teaching non-Islamic religious subjects. The Sharia Penal Code Order criminalizes exposing Muslim children or the children of parents who have no religion to the beliefs and practices of any religion other than Islam. The order also requires practitioners to receive official permission before teaching any matter relating to Islam.
There is no legal requirement for women to wear head coverings in public; however, religious authorities reinforce social customs to encourage Muslim women to wear the tudong, a traditional head covering, and many women do so. In government schools and institutions of higher learning, Muslim and non-Muslim female students must wear the local national dress, including a head covering, as a part of their uniform. Male students are expected to wear the songkok (hat), although this is not required in all schools.
Legal contacts report that if a Muslim tries to marry a non-Muslim, the officiant will require the non-Muslim to convert.
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.
Any public assembly of five or more persons requires official approval in advance. Under longstanding emergency powers, this applies to all forms of public assembly, whether religious, political, or social.
Relevant authorities permit Chinese religious temples to celebrate seasonal religious events. The temples, however, must reapply for permission annually.