Senate would condition Malaysia aid on religious freedom

The Senate tied $1.2 million in military aid for Malaysia to religious freedom there, a response Monday to criticism of Jews by the Southeast Asian nation's prime minister.

Before money could be spent, the State Department would have to determine that Malaysia "supports and promotes religious freedoms, including tolerance for people of the Jewish faith." The stipulation could be waived for national security reasons.

The restrictions were approved by voice vote as an amendment to the $18.1 billion foreign aid bill being considered by the Senate. After the bill's approval, it will have to be reconciled with a $17.1 billion version approved by the House in July.

In an Oct. 16 speech to a summit of Islamic countries, retiring Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said that Jews "rule the world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them."

Mahathir, who leaves office Friday, defended the remarks Monday. Noting European Union criticism of his comments, he suggested the European Union says nothing when Muslims are criticized.

Mahathir said that "shows that they are under the thumb of the Jews." He said he does not consider himself anti-Semitic.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said the Senate vote was an example of the United States trying to "discipline the world in their own mold."

"So, now it is another Muslim country that is being zeroed in for their so-called disciplining," Syed Hamid told The Associated Press in Kuala Lumpur.

The sponsor of the amendment, Sen. Mitch McConnell, said Mahathir's Oct. 16 remarks "are dangerously wrong, and they play directly into the hands of the radical Islamic extremists throughout the region."

"This is not an issue of free speech," said McConnell, of Kentucky, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate. "His anti-Semitic remarks lent credence and legitimacy to the hateful message of local terrorists that seek to sow mayhem throughout the region."

A State Department report on religious freedom last year said Malaysia's constitution provides for religious freedom. "However," it said, "the government places some restrictions on this right."