Religion plays a significant role in the life of Thai people. It is an important component of the society, the family, and the community. It can be said that religion plays a vital role in building the Thai characteristics of being calm, helpful, and forgiving, as well as showing a willingness to compromise. Violence in the areas of race, religion, or politics is virtually unheard of in Thailand.
The country has an area of 198,000 square miles and a population of 67 million. According to the 2000 census, 94 percent of the population is Buddhist and 5 percent is Muslim. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), academics, and religious groups claim 85 to 95 percent of the population is Theravada Buddhist and from 5 to 10 percent is Muslim. Groups that constitute less than 5 percent of the population include animist, Christian, Confucian, Hindu, Jewish, Sikh, and Taoist populations.
Theravada Buddhism, the dominant religion, is not an exclusive belief system, and most Buddhists also incorporate Brahmin-Hindu and animist practices. The Buddhist clergy (Sangha) consists of two main schools: Mahanikaya and Dhammayuttika. The former is older and more prevalent within the monastic community than the latter. The same ecclesiastical hierarchy governs both groups.
Islam is the dominant religion in four of the five southernmost provinces. The majority of Muslims in those provinces are ethnic Malay, but the Muslim population country-wide also includes descendants of immigrants from South Asia, China, Cambodia, Indonesia, and those who consider themselves ethnic Thai. The Ministry of Interior's Islamic Affairs Section reported there are 3,679 registered mosques in 67 of the country's 76 provinces, of which 3,121 are located in the 14 southern provinces. According to the Religious Affairs Department (RAD) of the Ministry of Culture, 99 percent of these mosques are associated with the Sunni branch of Islam. Shia mosques make up 1 percent and are in Bangkok and the provinces of Nakhon Sithammarat and Krabi. There are 39 Provincial Islamic Committees nationwide.
According to the 2000 census, there are an estimated 440,000 Christians in the country, constituting 0.7 percent of the population. While there are a number of denominations, the government recognizes five Christian umbrella organizations: the Catholic Mission of Bangkok (Roman Catholic); the Church of Christ in Thailand (Protestant); the Evangelical Fellowship of Thailand (Protestant); Saha Christchak (Baptist); and the Seventh-day Adventist Church of Thailand. The oldest of these groupings, the Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT), was formed in 1934 and claims 114,000 adherents. The Catholic Mission of Bangkok has 335,000 believers. The Evangelical Fellowship of Thailand has approximately 126,000 believers. The Seventh-day Adventists have approximately 13,000 members, and the Saha Christchak Baptists report 10,000 followers.
Buddhism reached Thailand in the Dvaravati Period in the 10th-14th centuries and Nakhon Pathom was its center. Since then Buddhism has grown and spread and is now the dominant religion of the country. Buddhism is deeply rooted in the spirit of the Thai people and is related to almost every aspect of life. Each village has a temple as its center and it plays an important role in everything the village does. The temple is a place not just for rituals but also education. Traditionally, a 21-year old man must be ordained as a monk to show his gratitude to his parents and to be a good Buddhist. After ordination he is given more responsibilities and is considered to be mature. Thai Buddhism follows the Hinayana School of Buddhism (the Smaller Vehicle, the Southern School of Buddhism) and holds that a person who attains dharma (the teachings of the Buddha) will be enlightened.
There is no state religion; however, Theravada Buddhism receives significant government support, and the 2007 constitution retains the requirement from the previous charter that the monarch be Buddhist. The constitution specifies the state shall "protect Buddhism as the religion observed by most Thais for a long period of time and other religions, and shall also promote a good understanding and harmony among the followers of all religions as well as encourage the application of religious principles to create virtue and develop the quality of life."
The 2007 constitution generally provides for freedom of speech; however, laws prohibiting speech likely to insult Buddhism remain in place. The 1962 Sangha Act (amended in 1992) specifically prohibits the defamation or insult of Buddhism and the Buddhist clergy. Violators of the law could face up to one year's imprisonment or fines of up to 20,000 baht (approximately $664). The 1956 penal code's sections 206 to 208 (last amended in 1976) prohibit the insult or disturbance of religious places or services of all officially recognized religions. Penalties range from imprisonment of one to seven years or a fine of 2,000 to 14,000 baht ($66 to $465).
The 2007 constitution requires that the government "patronize and protect Buddhism and other religions." In accordance with this requirement, the government subsidized activities of all five primary religious communities. The government allocated 3.6 billion baht ($119.6 million) for fiscal year 2010 to support the National Buddhism Bureau, an independent state agency. The bureau oversees the Buddhist clergy and approves the curriculums of Buddhist teachings for all Buddhist temples and educational institutions. In addition, the bureau sponsored educational and public relations materials on Buddhism as it relates to daily life. For fiscal year 2010 the government, through the RAD, budgeted 125 million baht ($4.15 million) for Buddhist organizations; 35.6 million baht ($1.2 million) for Islamic organizations; and 3 million baht ($99,667) for Christian, Brahmin-Hindu, and Sikh organizations. The RAD fiscal year 2010 budget also allocated 38 million baht ($1.26 million) for religious research, children's activities, and summer camps, as well as 10.6 million baht ($352,159) for the Religious Promotion Project in the southern border provinces.
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