The tiny Muslim monarchy of Brunei oppressed and restricted Christians and non-Muslims even before the ruler announced the implementation of a Shariah-based penal code this month.
The country, which borders Malaysia, already prohibited evangelism and tightly controlled churches through surveillance and forbidding the formation of new churches, according to International Christian Concern (ICC).
But the situation will worsen now that Islamic criminal laws will apply to everyone in the country of roughly 420,000 people. Brunei already has Islamic civil laws. About 40,000 Christians live in the majority Muslim state, along with a Buddhist minority, according to ICC.
ICC’s Sooyoung Kim said Brunei currently lacks the judges to enforce the new laws, but its leadership is putting a lot of money into implementation. Criminal Shariah law will increase pressure against Christians and instill more fear among them, according to a report in World Watch Monitor (WWM).
In February, the government said people could be punished with jail time or fines for “indecent” clothing. All women, regardless of religion, must wear hijabs, the traditional Muslim head coverings. Other criminal laws with harsh punishments will be phased in within a few years, including death by stoning for rape or sodomy, according to BosNewsLife.
The new penal code also makes 19 words illegal for non-Muslims to say, similar to Malaysia’s “Allah” ban. A court in Malaysia upheld that law in October. Christians in Brunei will no longer be allowed to use the Malay word “Allah” for God or “Firman Allah” for God’s Word, according to BosNewsLife.
Citing U.S. State Department information, WWM said converts from Islam to Christianity could lose custody of children under Brunei law, and the implementation of Shariah could extend custody cases to daycare services.
“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 State Department’s 2012 International Religious Freedom Report.
In addition to Christian groups, politicians, celebrities, and human rights organizations criticized Brunei’s new laws. Hollywood actors protested for women’s rights and gay rights, organizing a boycott of the Beverly Hills Hotel and others owned by the rulers of Brunei in early May, according to the BBC. Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch, called the institution of Sharia law “an authoritarian move towards brutal medieval punishments that have no place in the modern, 21st century world,” according to The Wall Street Journal.
Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., drafted a letter urging U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to “to insist that Brunei address these human rights violations as a condition of the United States participating with them in any further Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade negotiations,” Reuters reported. The TPP is a trade agreement between 12 countries, including the U.S. and Brunei, that would establish standards on a range of trade issues. Pocan will collect signatures from other congressmen until mid-June.