The government continued to enforce sharia restrictions and prosecuted new offenses under the SPC. It continued to apply sharia to non-Muslims, resulting in arrests, fines, and confiscations, as well as to impose traditional Islamic social norms more broadly. These included placing limitations on businesses, activities suspected of encouraging mingling of men and women, proselytizing, and religious education.
The authorities continued to arrest persons for offenses under sharia, such as khalwat and alcohol consumption by Muslims, both of which are illegal under the SPC as well as longstanding sharia. During the year, the government reported 103 khalwat cases, of which 69 resulted in convictions of both men and women. Of these cases, 88 were prosecuted under the SPC and 15 under longstanding sharia; eight of those convicted for khalwat were non-Muslims. Not all of those accused of khalwat were formally arrested. There were some reports of administrative penalties, such as travel bans or suspension from government jobs, for individuals accused but not yet convicted of khalwat, but application of such practices reportedly was not consistent. Implementing regulations governing khalwat proceedings were not issued by year’s end.
In March a Muslim civil servant was fined BND$1,000 ($706) under the SPC after he pleaded guilty to cross-dressing in a public place. During the court proceedings, the sharia prosecutor stated the act of men wearing women’s clothing was immoral in Islam. One additional person arrested for cross-dressing had not yet been prosecuted by year’s end.
Officials continued to state that the harshest punishments included in the later phases of the SPC, if implemented, would rarely if ever be applied because of the extremely high standards of proof required.
The government issued numerous warnings about restrictions on non-Muslims proselytizing to Muslims or people with no religion. Authorities prohibited non-Muslims and non-Shafi’i Muslims from receiving non-Shafi’i religious education in schools. During the year the government reported three cases of religious teaching without written approval, of which one resulted in conviction. The government tolerated religious education in private settings, such as the home. During a briefing to U.S. citizens on the implementation of SPC, a panel comprising representatives of MORA and the AGC said it was permitted to educate children – who are presumed to be of the same faith as their parents – about religion in the home, and to answer questions about other religions, as Islam promotes learning. They said it would only be an offense if a non-Muslim actively tried to persuade a Muslim or someone of no faith to follow a religion other than Islam.
Government officials reported no religious group sought to register.
Friday sermons were uniform across all mosques with approved texts drafted by the Ministry of Religious Affairs and preached by registered imams. The government periodically warned the population about “outsiders” preaching non-Shafi’i versions of Islam, including both “liberal” practices and those associated with jihadism or Salafism. In November MORA cohosted a conference with the Muslim World League (Rabitah Al-Alam Al-Islami), an NGO funded by Saudi Arabia and focused on the theme of wasatiah, or moderation, in Islam.
The government issued several warnings that the act of publicly displaying symbols of religions other than Islam could be seen as propagation of religions other than Islam, an offense under the SPC. During the Christmas season, imams’ standardized sermons warned Muslims against celebrating Christmas, including through decorations or carols. Unlike during the 2014 season, in which MORA issued warnings that the public display of Christmas decorations could constitute an offense under the SPC and several businesses reportedly received visits from religious enforcement officers, there were no reports of raids or charges, but businesses and members of the Christian community reported practicing self-censorship. In February the government placed additional restrictions on traditional Chinese New Year lion dance performances. Performances were limited to a three-day period and restricted to the Chinese temple, Chinese school halls, and private residencies of Chinese association members. There were no reports of charges. Members of the royal family publicly attended Chinese New Year celebrations and lion dance performances during the allowed period, with extensive coverage in state-influenced media.
Muslim women employed by the government were expected to wear a tudong, a traditional head covering, to work, though some chose not to with no reports of official repercussions. In government schools and institutions of higher learning, Muslim female students were required to wear a uniform that includes a head covering. Male students were expected to wear the songkok, a traditional hat, although this was not required in all schools. Women who were incarcerated, including non-Muslims, were required to wear a uniform that included a tudong.
Churches confirmed that a fatwa barring their expansion or renovation remained in place, and that facilities were often too small to accommodate their congregations without significant overflow seating outdoors. Christian churches and associated schools were allowed, for safety reasons, to repair and renovate buildings on their sites, but the approval process remained lengthy and difficult. All church-associated schools were recognized by the Ministry of Education and offered a full curriculum. The schools remained open to students of any religion.
The government continued to enforce strict customs controls on importing non-Islamic religious texts such as Bibles, as well as on Islamic religious teaching materials or scriptures intended for sale or distribution.
The Ministry of Education (MOE) required courses on Islam and MIB in all schools, with non-Muslims exempted from some religious requirements. The Ministry of Religious Affairs posted religious teachers in some embassies abroad to teach Brunei citizens in those locations Most school textbooks were illustrated to portray Islam as the norm, and women and girls were shown wearing the Islamic head covering. There were no depictions of the practices of other religious groups in textbooks.
Throughout the year, the government enforced business hour restrictions for all businesses, requiring that they close for the two hours of Friday prayers. Religious enforcement officers continued to enforce a ban on restaurants serving dine-in food during the fasting hours of Ramadan, and issued verbal warnings to those found in breach of the ban. In June 17 non-halal restaurants sent a letter of appeal to MORA to allow them to serve non-Muslim customers during Ramadan fasting hours. In response, the ministry issued a statement urging the public to respect Ramadan and reiterating all restaurants were banned from serving dine-in customers during the fasting hours. The government continued to enforce a ban on eating, drinking, or smoking in public during the fasting hours of Ramadan, which was applied to both Muslims and non-Muslims. There were no publicized arrests or prosecutions for failure to respect Ramadan.
The government maintained a longstanding ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages, and a restriction against the import or consumption of alcoholic beverages by Muslims. Religious authorities conducted raids to confiscate alcoholic beverages and nonhalal meats brought into the country without proper customs clearance. They also monitored restaurants and supermarkets to ensure conformity with halal practices. Religious authorities allowed nonhalal restaurants and nonhalal sections in supermarkets to operate without interference, but held public outreach sessions to encourage restaurants to become halal.
The government continued to favor the propagation of Shafi’i beliefs and practices, particularly through public events and the education system. In February University Islam Sultan Sharif Ali (UNISSA) held a five-series lecture program to enhance the understanding of the Shafi’i school of Islam among citizens. The lectures focused on exploration of the life of Imam as-Shafi’i and his writings, particularly those related to Islamic jurisprudence. The government maintained a list of words and expressions, including the word “Allah,” reserved for use by Muslims or in relation to Islam, but there were no reports of charges or prosecutions based on violations of this list. The government clarified the use of these words did not constitute an offense when used in a nonreligious context or social activity, and other specific conditions needed to be met for their use to be considered an offense.
Incentives offered to prospective converts to the Shafi’i school, especially those from indigenous communities in rural areas, included help with housing and welfare assistance. In May a joint project between the Islamic Da’wah Centre, an official institution to propagate Islam and promote Islamic learning and conversion, and MORA was launched to build houses for disadvantaged new converts. Other converts received monthly living assistance from the Islamic Da’wah Centre or funds to perform the Hajj. The government gave presentations on the benefits of converting to Islam that received extensive press coverage in state-influenced media. Official government policy supported the Islamic faith through the national MIB philosophy as well as through government pledges to make the country a zikir nation, or a nation that remembers and obeys Allah.
Despite the absence of a legal prohibition of Muslims marrying non-Muslims, all Muslim weddings had to be approved by the Sharia courts, and officiants, who are imams approved by the government, required the non-Muslim to convert prior to the marriage.
Most government meetings and ceremonies commenced with an Islamic prayer, which the government continued to state was not a legal requirement but a matter of custom.
The government required residents to carry identity cards that stated the bearer’s ethnicity, which were used in part to determine whether he or she was Muslim. Ethnic Malays traveling in the country were generally assumed to be Muslim and required to follow certain Islamic religious practices or potentially face fines, arrest, and imprisonment. Religious authorities reportedly 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 SPC.