Malaysian Christians on edge after church blazes

KUALA LUMPUR- Christian groups in Malaysia said on Friday they feared recent attacks on churches may herald a spate of violence against places of worship and they were calling on authorities to ensure security.

There have been fires at five churches in mostly-Muslim Malaysia in the wake of global protests over the U.S.-led strikes on Afghanistan.

"The real fear we have is not so much of our churches being burnt," Reverend Wong Kim Kong, principal secretary of the Christian Federation of Malaysia, told Reuters.

"Our fear is this kind of action can eventually accentuate with more circumstances, and eventually it could not be us alone but it could spread to other groups as well," he said.

Malaysia has seen little religious violence before and Christian leaders were watching events with a wary eye on neighbouring Indonesia, the world's biggest Muslim country, where there have been more frequent attacks on churches.

"It is not something we can take lightly because of the situations surrounding the world and also our neighbouring country."

"We want to first of all get assurance from the police that protection will be given to places of worship," Wong said.

Police have said they did not believe any organised group was behind the church fires.

Nearly two-thirds of Malaysia's 23 million people are ethnic Malay Muslims. Most of the rest are Chinese, who are largely Buddhists, and Indians, who are mostly Hindus. Christians are a minority.

Wong said members of his federation would be meeting police on Monday to discuss security and Church members were being urged to be calm.

"We are also going to communicate to churches throughout Malaysia to ask our people not to be provoked or respond with retaliation," he said.

Malaysia has seen little in the way of anti-U.S. or anti-Western protests since the U.S.-led attacks on Afghanistan were launched on October 7 in response to the September 11 attacks on the United States.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's government condemned the attacks on the United States and later called for a halt to the bombing of Afghanistan.

Mahathir has warned of rising Islamic radicalism in Malaysia and authorities have detained several suspected members of an Afghan-trained militant group they said had links with militants in Indonesia and the Philippines.

Police say the group was involved in attacks on churches in Indonesia, the murder of a Roman Catholic politician in Mahathir's government and a bombing attempt on a Hindu temple.

One person has been prosecuted over the church fires in Malaysia but he was a drug addict and not a militant, the government said.

05:20 11-09-01