By BosNewsLife Asia Service with reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN (BosNewsLife)-- Dutch Queen Beatrix has begun a two-day visit to Brunei, focusing on expanding economic relations despite concerns about the reported increased persecution of minority Christians in the gas and oil rich Islamic mini-state.
Accompanied by Crown Prince Willem-Alexander, Princess Máxima and a trade delegation of Dutch companies, the queen was laughing when meeting the 66-year-old Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah in what is the world's largest palace.
With energy giant Shell hoping to extend its foot print in Brunei's extensive oil and gas fields, the monarch was not expected to make comments on more sensitive religious rights issues.
Well-informed Open Doors, a Netherlands-based Christian relief group, said ahead of her visit that the sultan announced preparations for an 'Islamic Criminal Law' to "complicate the situation for the Christian minority further, especially those known to have converted."
The planned legislation was not expected to receive much opposition from the rubber-stamp parliament, which the sultan reopened in 2004 some 20 years after it was suspended.
Already, "Churches must register, but requests are frequently ignored by officials," said Open Doors, which has close contacts with local Christians. "Registered churches are closely monitored and services are attended by government informants. They are prohibited from taking in seekers [in the Christian faith] and converts from the local population," the group added.
Those who violate the rules reportedly face church closure and possible imprisonment for the pastor. "Because of these restrictions, believers from a Muslim background are often isolated and neglected," Open Doors said.
"Christians face discrimination in the workplace and are ineligible for top positions in the government."
Additionally, "No foreign Christian workers are permitted" Open Doors said, referring to for instance missionaries, while "importing Bibles and Christian literature is illegal for ministry", though "not for personal purposes."
Locals in this state of 400,000 people have little opportunity to learn about Christianity, with religious instruction in all schools, including the six Christian schools, in Islam alone, Christians said.
It is part of wider policy of the sultan who in 1991 introduced the conservative ideology 'Malay Muslim Monarchy', which presented the monarchy as the defender of the faith.
The ideology was also seen as pre-empting calls for democratization and critics have said it alienated Brunei's large Chinese and expatriate communities, many of whom are Christians.
"Most Christians in Brunei are expatriates and migrants are allowed to practice their faith, but not to share it with Malays, the major people group in Brunei," Open Doors noted.
There are an estimated 40,000 Christians in Brunei, which ranks 28 on the Open Doors annual World Watch List (WWL) of 50 nations, where it claims Christians suffer most for their faith.
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