Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Apostolic Vicar: Sharia as a challenge and opportunity for Catholics in Brunei

The Church in Brunei, after seeing the country undergo a gradual process of Islamisation, must be "creative" and respond effectively "to the challenges of the present time," said Mgr Cornelius Sim, apostolic vicar in the Sultanate, as he addressed growing concerns by local Catholics over the upcoming introduction of Sharia in April. 

Although Islamic law will apply only to Muslims, it will inevitably have repercussions on Christians and other concerned religious minorities. For this reason, the prelate told Église d'Asie (EDA) that the faithful are invited to a "Eucharistic celebration at 12.30 pm next Friday", the Muslim day of prayer, at one of the three local churches, followed by "communal fasting".

This comes after Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah recently introduced Islamic law (Sharia) for Muslims. "By the grace of Allah, with the coming into effect of this legislation, our duty to Allah is therefore being fulfilled," the 67-year-old sultan said.

The new dispensation includes he death penalty by stoning for adultery, amputation for thieves, and flogging for other crimes such as abortion and alcohol consumption. Indeed, the sale and consumption in public of alcoholic beverages are already banned and the authorities carefully monitor other religions. 

The sultan's family has ruled the oil-rich kingdom of 400,000 for centuries. The current office holder came to power in 1967, when he was 21. Since 1996, he has been pushing to enforce Islamic law (and punishments).

Even if his task "is not simple" with only three parishes, three priests, and no seminarian, Mgr Cornelius Sim is confident that he will be able to enrich and strengthen the life of the local Church. 

Yet, he has his job cut out because the authorities are good at exerting subtle but relentless pressures. Under their prodding, the local press never misses a chance to talk about conversions from Christianity to Islam.

Still, the prelate is unruffled, waiting to see how the situation will evolve in the country, well aware though that the new rules are disturbing to Catholics. 

To the extent that the introduction of Sharia is part of a more comprehensive plan of Islamisation of the Sultanate and its 400,000 residents, Christians and other minorities, according to widespread concerns, are likely to become "second-class citizens."

This would mean that Islamic law would be enforced on Christians whenever they are involved in a crime or an offence like adultery in which the other party is a Muslim, Mgr Sims noted. 

In this case, "submission" to the Muslim majority is a real danger, warns a Catholic lawyer who requested anonymity. Hence, many believers would consider "emigration" as an option.

The Sultanate of Brunei is a small country located on the island of Borneo, which it shares with two larger nations: Indonesia and Malaysia. It is a developed country and one of the richest in the world. 

Malay is the official language, but English and Chinese are widely used. 

Almost 70 per cent of the residents of this absolute monarchy are Muslim and ethnic Malay; 13 per cent are Buddhists, mostly Chinese; 10 per cent are Christians, half of them Catholic (70 per cent from the Philippines, 20 per cent from Indonesia, and 10 per cent from local indigenous communities); and the rest follow indigenous religions.

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