THAILAND RELIGIONS

THAILAND RELIGIONS

According to the last census (2000) 94.7% of Thais are Buddhists of the Theravada tradition. Muslims are the second largest religious group in Thailand at 4.6% Thailand’s southernmost provinces – Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and part of Songkhla Chumphon have dominant Muslim populations, consisting of both ethnic Thai and Malay. The southern tip of Thailand is mostly ethnic Malays. Christians, mainly Catholics, represent 0.8% of the population with higher percentages in the north. A tiny but influential community of Sikhs in Thailand and some Hindus also live in the country’s cities, and are heavily engaged in retail commerce. There is also a small Jewish community in Thailand, dating back to the 17th century. Since 2001, Muslim activists, generally described by the Thai government as terrorists or separatists, have rallied against the central government because of alleged corruption and ethnic bias on the part of officials. Thailand’s Department of Religion, currently under the Ministry of Culture, is formally responsible for the registration of religious groups in Thailand  which hold properties through legally established foundations. It has oversight, along with the Immigration Police, over the work permits of missionaries who are “expatriate religious workers” of all religions.

Buddhism
Buddhism in Thailand is largely of the Theravada school. Nearly 95% of Thailand’s population is Buddhist of the Theravada school, though Buddhism in this country has become integrated with folk beliefs such as ancestor worship as well as Chinese religions from the large Thai-Chinese population . Buddhist temples in Thailand are characterized by tall golden stupas, and the Buddhist architecture of Thailand is similar to that in other Southeast Asian countries, particularly Cambodia and Laos, with which Thailand shares cultural and historical heritage.

Islam
Islam is most popular in southern Thailand, near the border with Malaysia, where the vast majority of the country’s Muslims, predominantly Malay in origin, are found. The remaining Muslims are Pakistani immigrants in the urban centers, ethnic Thai in the rural areas of the Center and South (varying from entire Muslim communities to mixed settlements), and a few Chinese Muslims in the far north. Also, Cambodian Muslims can be found between the mutual border and Bangkok as well as the deep south. Education and maintenance of their own cultural traditions are vital interests of these groups.

Hinduism
A number of Hindus remain in Thailand. They are mostly located in the cities. In the past, the nation came under the influence of the Khmer Empire, which had strong Hindu roots. The epic, Ramakien, is based on the Ramayana. The city, Ayutthaya, is named after Ayodhya, the birthplace of Rama. Numerous rituals derived from Brahminism are preserved in rituals, such as use of holy strings and pouring of lustral water from conch shells. Furthermore, Hindu deities are worshipped by many Thais alongside Buddhism, such as the famous Erawan shrine, and statues of Ganesh, Indra, and Shiva, as well as numerous symbols relating to Hindu deities are found, e.g., Garuda, a symbol of the monarchy.

Judaism
Jewish community life in Thailand dates back to the 17th century, first with the arrival of a few Baghdadi Jewish families, although the current community is mainly Ashkenazi descendants of refugees from Russia, and later the Soviet Union. Further augmenting the community were Persian Jews fleeing persecution in Iran in the 1970s and 1980s. Most of the Jewish community in Thailand, consisting of probably less than 1,000 individuals, resides in Bangkok  (especially in the Khaosan Road area), although smaller Jewish communities with synagogues are found in Phuket, Chiang Mai (home of Rabbi Levi Tzeitlin) and Koh Samui.

Sikhism
The first Sikh migrated to Thailand in 1890. His name was Ladha Singh. Sikhs began migrating to the Kingdom of Thailand in the early 1900s. By the year 1911, many Sikh families had settled in Thailand. Bangkok was indeed the centre of migrant Sikhs. During that time there was no Gurdwara, so religious prayers were held in the homes of the Sikhs in rotation on every Sunday and all the Gurpurab days.The population of the Sikh community was on the rise, therefore in the year 1912, the Sikhs decided to establish a Gurdwara.A tiny but influential community of Sikhs also live in the country’s cities, and are heavily engaged in retail commerce.

Christianity
Christianity has a long history in Thailand. It was introduced by European missionaries as early as the 1550s, when Portuguese mercenaries and their chaplain arrived in Ayutthaya. . Historically, it has played a significant role in the modernization of Thailand, notably in the social and educational institutions (e.g. orphanages, schools and colleges). . It represents 0.8% of the national population.

Thailand’s Department of Religion, currently under the Ministry of Culture, has formally recognized five major Christian denominations: The Roman Catholic Church, The Southern Baptists, The Seventh Day Adventists, the Church of Christ in Thailand and the Evangelical Fellowship of Thailand . Although national budget for religious purposes has historically been designated for Buddhist structures, facilities and activities, since at least the mid 1980s it has been providing token amounts of budget for programs of Christian groups.

There are a growing group of evangelical foreign missionaries and residents who are establishing churches and prayer groups throughout Thailand. One of the largest is Youth with a Mission. Presently YWAM has over 200 full time foreign staff and over 100 Thai staff, ministering in 20 locations. Another missionary organization, OMF International, has an outreach to place Christian teachers in the Kingdom’s schools.

Freedom of religion
The law provides for freedom of religion, and the government generally respects this right in practice; however, it does not register new religious groups that have not been accepted into one of the existing religious governing bodies on doctrinal or other grounds. In practice, unregistered religious organizations operate freely, and the government’s practice of not recognizing any new religious groups does not restrict the activities of unregistered religious groups. The government officially limits the number of foreign missionaries that may work in the country, although unregistered missionaries are present in large numbers and are allowed to live and work freely. There have been no widespread reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious belief or practice. However, in the far southern border provinces, continued separatist violence resulted in mistrust in relations between the Buddhist and Muslim communities.

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