Brunei Christians Suffer For Government 'Cult' Fears

Tuesday, April 24, 2001

Authorities are Concerned that Subversive Elements will Bring Instability
by Jeff Taylor

LOS ANGELES, April 24 (Compass) -- Details emerging from recent detentions and interrogations of Christians in Brunei point to a growing government concern that the growth of "cults" in this predominately-Muslim nation could lead to political and religious instability.

Seven Christians -- including two converts from Islam -- were arrested in December and January because of their suspected participation in a well-organized prayer program in Brunei, a small Southeast Asian Muslim sultanate on northern Borneo island that is surrounded on three sides by the country of Malaysia.

Yunus Murang, one of three Christians arrested in mid December, has been sentenced to two years in prison for illegally importing and possessing Indonesian Bibles. Malai Taufick Haji Malai Mashor and Mohammed Fredie Chong Abdullah, both converts from Islam, are believed to be still under detention, contrary to earlier reports that they had been released. It is not known what charges have been filed against the two former Muslims.

Four Christians arrested on January 30 were released approximately two weeks later.

In addition, an unspecified number of Christians have been called in for questioning by security police. The nature of these interrogations gives credence to reports that Brunei officials see "cult" growth as a threat to the nation's well-being. Authorities seem concerned about the possible formation of a "Christian cult" that intends to topple the government using subversive methods.

In an April 9 response faxed to British Parliamentarians who had inquired about the Brunei detainees, Brunei High Commissioner Dato Haji Yusof Hamid said the arrests were "necessary to protect religious harmony in the country."

"In Brunei Darussalam, the Constitution guarantees freedom of worship for all citizens but it does not mean undermining the majority," the commissioner wrote. "These people were involved in subversive activities directed towards misleading the majority Muslim community by deceptive means that the government believed could threaten the prevailing inter-religious harmony."

He added, "Hence, the government has taken these measures to ensure political stability, social and religious harmony in the country."

One local Christian, who did not want to be identified, said authorities questioned him about his connection to an organized prayer program. He was also asked about the nature of his relationship with the Christians arrested in December and January and with foreign pastors, including some from Malaysia. He said Internal Security Department (ISD) officials seemed satisfied that the prayer activities were not a threat to the country and released him the same day.

At the moment, however, Christians are concerned about the location of Taufick and Chong.

In late March, an ISD spokesperson, Mrs. Salbiah, said that Taufick, a member of an influential business family in Brunei, was "no longer in their custody." Taufick's wife speculated at the time that he may have been released to family members for Islamic rehabilitation. According to Brunei law, Taufick remains a Muslim, since the law does not provide for conversion of Muslims to other faiths. But his whereabouts are unknown and it's possible he is still being held. Local sources believe Chong is also still being held.

This series of arrests and interrogations began on December 17, when Yunus Murang, a civil servant attached to the Health Department, was arrested at Taufick's home in Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital city of Brunei. Taufick was arrested at the same time. About 50 police officers from the ISD and officers from the Religious Affairs Department conducted a thorough search and took away three bags of Bibles and Christian literature. Chong was arrested the next day.

On January 30, four more Christians were arrested: Tokching bin Ikas, an engineer with the Health Department; Mariam Murang (sister of Yunus); Mary Cheong, a dentist; and 'Ibu' Roslin, a housewife. They were released February 11, but each is required to report to police once a week, and their movements are monitored.

It is not known how many Christians have been questioned in relation to the arrests.

The "Borneo Bulletin" repeated on March 22 a Radio Television Brunei report that 25 people were under investigation in the case, 13 Muslims and 12 Christians. The report said 10 of the Christians were members of a local cult and "were found to have made secret plans to mislead many Muslims from their faith through lies."

Four days later, Malaysia's "The Sun" newspaper carried an Agence France Press report that quoted the ISD as saying that the Christians' activities were "aimed to deviate the belief of the Muslim population by deceptive means." The public was reminded to "preserve the religious harmony and stability" of the country.

Media reports initially linked Yunus Murang, Taufick and Chong and their "alleged cult activities" to the Borneo Evangelical Church (Sidang Injil Borneo, or SIB), an evangelical denomination from the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. But as members since 1984 of the National Evangelical Fellowship of Malaysia, the SIB has never been categorized as a cult.

The opposition of Brunei authorities to "cults" may be related to concerns about the Malaysia-based fundamentalist group Al-Ma'unah. Nineteen members of the Muslim sect are currently on trial for treason in neighboring Malaysia. A December 23 "News Express" report stated that "Brunei . is generally free from activities of fundamentalist and cult groups, though there was another recent instance of Malaysia-based Al Mauna sect members being rounded up and detained here."

Copyright © 2001 Compass Direct News Service. Used with permission.