Brunei, The Catholic Church in
BRUNEI, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
Located on the island of Borneo in southeast Asia, Negara Brunei Darussalam is formed of two narrow enclaves which border the South China Sea at their north and are surrounded on all other sides by Malaysia. Comprised of rough, rocky hills to the south, Brunei has a narrow coastal region that is the source of much of its wealth. Both oil and natural gas reserves were discovered on and off-shore in this area, giving the sultanate one of the highest gross domestic products in the Third World. Most Bruneians are of Malay descent, although 15 percent of the population is of Chinese ancestry. The government subsidizes all food and housing, as well as medical services for the citizens of Brunei. Due to a dearth of arable land, agriculture production is limited to rice, tapioca and bananas; in addition there are fishing and forestry industries.
Originally part of the Vicariate of the East Indies (1842), the Catholic Church in Brunei was put under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Miri-Brunei (1959), in Kuching (Sarawak), East Malaysia. However, in 1997 the Vatican appointed Monsignor Cornelius Sim as apostolic prefect for Brunei, still retaining the link with the ecclesiastical province in Kuching. Most Catholics living in Brunei are Chinese, Filipinos and Europeans who are temporary residents of the country while employed in technical jobs related to the country's petroleum refining and natural gas industries. The country is home to one of the largest gas-liquefaction plants in the world, although by the late 1990s efforts were underway to diversify Brunei's economy away from reliance upon its energy resources.
History. Islam entered northern Borneo in the 5th century and had become dominant by the 14th century, when Brunei King Sang Aji Awang Alak Betatar became the first sultan. In control of all of Borneo by the 16th century, the Sultanate of Brunei was gradually diminished in size as a result of piracy, wars and the colonization efforts of various European nations. By 1800 its influence reached only to the Malayan states of Sarawak and Sarah. Sarawak was lost in 1841 following a local revolt suppressed with the help of the British, who took control five years later; Sabah was leased to Great Britain in 1881 and eventually became a part of the Federation of Malaysia. After 1890 Mill Hill missionaries entered the area; their evangelization efforts were successful predominately among the region's indigenous population. In 1888, in return for his lost lands, the Sultan was granted a British protectorate, which was enlarged in 1906. In 1959 Brunei was granted internal self-rule.
The discovery of oil along Brunei's coast in 1926 greatly enhanced the region's economy, and in the early 1960s the existence of off-shore oil deposits as well as natural gas prompted pressure on the government to join
the Federation of Malaysia. That pressure was repulsed, in part by an outbreak of nationalism, and on Jan. 1, 1984 Brunei was made an independent sultanate. A state of emergency originally declared in 1962 continued to suspend the Brunei constitution of Sept. 29, 1959 and thus allowed the Sultan to rule by decree. By 2000 His Majesty Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu‘izzaddin Waddaulah, sultan of Brunei since 1967, was named among the 350 wealthiest people in the world.
In 1991, through the sultan, the government attempted to reaffirm its commitment to Islam through the Malayu Islamic Beraja, or MIB, which dates back to the 1st century a.d.. Under the MIB the celebration of Christmas was forbidden, a decision by the government's Religious Council that supported islamic law (Shari‘a). In addition, the two Catholic schools in the country were not allowed to teach any faith but Islam, and were also required to teach the Arabic script. Two years after the MIB was imposed, the government reasserted its commitment to freedom of religion through the Kuala Lumpur Declaration, although non-Muslim faiths remained under restrictions imposed by Shari‘a. By 2000 Brunei contained three Catholic parishes and its faithful were tended by one diocecan and one religious priest. The installation of the first apostolic prefecture in Brunei was seen as a step toward a more moderate approach regarding non-Muslim faiths.
Bibliography: j. rooney, Khabar gembira = The Good News: A History of the Catholic Church in East Malaysia and Brunei, 1880-1976 (1977). d. r. singh, Historical Dictionary of Brunei Darussalam (Metuchen, NJ, 1997). e. m. kershaw, A Study of Brunei Dusun Religion (Bandar 2000).