Religion in Thailand
There is no official state religion in the Thai constitution, which guarantees religious freedom for all Thai citizens, though the king is required by law to be Buddhist. According to the last census (2000) 94.6% 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 0.7% of the population. A small 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 in Thailand is largely of the Theravada school. Nearly 95% of Thailand's population is Buddhist of the Theravada school, though Thai Buddhism has become integrated with folk beliefs such as ancestor worship, as well as Chinese beliefs 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, especially Cambodia and Laos, which share a cultural and historical heritage with Cambodia.
It is often thought that the majority of the country's Muslims is concentrated in the kingdom's three Southernmost provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat. However, the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs' reports that only 18% of Thai Muslims live in the border provinces. The rest are scattered throughout Thailand, with the largest concentrations in Bangkok and throughout the southern peninsula. According to the National Statistics Office, in 2005, Muslims in Southern Thailand made up 30.4% of population over the age 15, while constituting less than 3% in the other regions of the country.
Thailand's Muslim population is diverse, with ethnic groups having migrated from China, Pakistan, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia, and including some indigenous Thais. About two-third of the Muslims in Thailand are of Malay ancestry, though most no longer speak that language.
According to the Thai Census of 2005, there are 2,777,542 Muslims living in Thailand, making up 4.56% of the total population. The Muslims are younger compared to the general population, comprising 6.28% of those in the age-group of 0–4 years, but only 3.91% of those who are 85 years or more.
Several thousand Hindus live in Thailand, mainly in the larger cities. Thailand its earliest days was under the rule of the Khmer Empire, which had strong Hindu roots, and the influence remains even today. The popular Ramakien epic is based on the Hindu Ramayana. The former capital of Ayutthaya was named for Ayodhya, the Indian birthplace of the Hindu god Rama. Brahmin rituals are still common, including the use of holy strings for blessing and pouring of lustral water from conch shells. Hindu deities are worshipped by many Thais despite their official Buddhism, and statues of Ganesh, Indra, and Shiva are everywhere to be seen. The Samudra manthan - wherein Devas and Asuras churn the ocean of milk, with Vishnu's Kurma Avatar (also standing on top of the mountain in his four-armed form) carrying a mountain as a pivot - is showcased at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. Another relic of Hinduism is the mythical Garuda, now a symbol of the monarchy.
According to the Thai Census of 2005, there are 52,631 Hindus living in Thailand, making up just 0.09% of the total population.
Jewish community life in Thailand dates to the 17th century, with the arrival of a few Baghdadi Jewish families. The present community are mainly Ashkenazi descendants of refugees from Imperial Russia and later the Soviet Union. Augmenting the small community were Persian Jews fleeing persecution in Iran in the 1970s and 1980s. Most of the Jewish community in Thailand, consisting of probably just under 1,000, reside in Bangkok, although smaller Jewish communities with synagogues are in Phuket, Chiang Mai (home of Rabbi Levi Tzeitlin), and Koh Samui.
The first Sikh known to have come to Thailand was Ladha Singh, who arrived in 1890. Other Sikhs joined him in the early 1900s, and by 1911 more than hundred Sikh families had settled in Thailand, mainly in Thonburi Region. There was as yet no Gurdwara, and religious prayers were held in private homes in rotation every Sunday and the Gurpurab days. The Sikh community continued to grow, and in 1912 it was decided to build a Gurdwara. It stands today in Bangkok's Pahurat area and is a replica of the Golden Temple in Amritsar Punjab, India. A tiny but influential community of Sikhs live in the country's cities, all engaged in retail commerce.
Christianity 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 modernisation of Thailand, notably in the social and educational institutions (e.g. orphanages, schools and colleges). It represents 0.7% of the national population.
Thailand's Department of Religion, currently under the Ministry of Culture, has formally recognized five major Christian churches/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 the 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. Although not officially recognised, missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints have been active in Thailand for decades.
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 has resulted in mistrust in relations between the Buddhist and Muslim communities.
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- United States Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Thailand: International Religious Freedom Report 2007. This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
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