Brunei adopts Sharia law — conversion from Islam carries death penalty

Originally published in Open Doors USA

Yesterday, the full extent of Sharia law goes into effect in Brunei. The newest and third phase of the law is difficult news for Christian converts who are expected to have to go into deeper hiding in the small Sultan-ruled country on the Southeast Asian island of Borneo where conversion from Islam is illegal and punishable by death.

Since first introducing Sharia law in 2014, the Sultan, 72-year-old Hassanal Bolkiah, has been encouraging Islamization of the country where Muslims make up about two-thirds of the country’s population of 434,000. He has called for “stronger” Islamic teachings in Brunei (No. 36 on the World Watch List).

What the new Brunei laws say and do

The new laws — which some have called “cruel and inhuman” — carry the death penalty for a variety of offences, including adultery, robbery, rape, sodomy and insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

The first phase, which covered crimes punishable by prison sentence and fines, was implemented in 2014. The new phase covers crimes, such as theft, punishable by amputation and stoning.

The law mostly applies to Muslims, including children who have reached puberty, though some aspects will apply to non-Muslims. For example, those who “persuade, tell or encourage” Muslim children under the age of 18 “to accept the teachings of religions other than Islam” are liable for a fine or jail

Individuals who have not reached puberty but are convicted of certain offences may be instead subjected to whipping.

International ire
Since announcing the full implementation of the law, the Brunei government, an absolute monarchy, has faced much international criticism and opposition by rights groups. The public outcry probably explains the last-minute announcement of the third stage of implementation only 10 days ago, said Tomas Muller, a persecution analyst for Open Doors’ World Watch Research unit.

On Monday, April 1, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bauchelet, urged Brunei to reconsider implementing the laws.

“Any religion-based legislation must not violate human rights, including the rights of those belonging to the majority religion as well as of religious minorities and non-believers,” Bauchelet said in a statement, warning the new laws could lead to violence and discrimination.

In addition to rights groups and the United Nations, Brunei and its new laws have drawn fire from high-profile celebrities in the West condemning the country for the laws’ inhumane “medieval” punishments and treatment of homosexuals.

Christians forced into deeper hiding
Christians who have left Islam already face discrimination in Brunei where conversion is considered illegal, as is importing Bibles. Public celebrations of Christmas have been banned since 2015.

Because conversion from Islam is strictly opposed by Bruneian laws, converts to Christianity will be separated from their spouse and children, and their spouse will be forced to divorce their partner. If converts are identified by the security department, they are threatened in an attempt to make them recant their faith.

Although it is still unclear what further impact the new penal code will have, the new penal code will affect every Muslim who converts from Islam to another faith like Christianity, Muller said.

“It is to be expected that not only society will change — depending on what exactly will be considered as anti-Islam –but also that the country’s Christian converts will be forced to hide their faith even more carefully.”

In a BBC report, a 23-year-old male Bruneian, who is not gay but has renounced Islam (his current religion was not specified), said he felt “fearful and numb” in the face of the laws being implemented.

Praying for the church in Brunei

  • Pray for Muslims who turn to Christ and now face strict punishment under Sharia law.
  • Pray that God will give Christians wisdom and courage to stand out as lights for Christ in this strict Islamic culture.
  • Pray that the government of Brunei would lift the decree that bans the importation of Bibles and the public celebration of Christmas.
  • Pray for underground believers who feel persecution strongly because the country is so small and there is nowhere to run if their faith in Christ is exposed.
  • Pray that the international community would urgently call for the government of Brunei to repeal the Sharia penal law. The rights of non-Muslims are severely restricted through these laws.

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