Malaysian government urged to create panel to protect religious freedoms

Malaysian religious and human rights groups are urging the government to set up a national commission to investigate religious grievances and improve policies on sensitive matters of faith.

Representatives of dozens of private groups will hold a Feb. 24-25 conference to prepare a proposal for a National Interfaith Commission that they say would reflect the predominantly Muslim country's commitment to safeguard other religions.

"We cannot run from the reality that our society comprises people of various faiths," said lawyer Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, who heads a committee spearheading the proposal. "The fact is that conflicts exist and will cause resentment to fester if we leave them entrenched."

Religion is a sensitive issue in Malaysia. Nearly 60 percent of the country's 25 million people are ethnic Malay Muslims, but freedom of worship is guaranteed in the constitution for the large Buddhist, Christian and Hindu minorities.

Religious controversies occasionally surface, but open friction between Muslims and non-Muslims is rare in the modern, progressive Southeast Asian country that prides itself on religious moderation and racial tolerance.

Nevertheless, activists believe the creation of a state-backed panel is necessary to probe complaints of religious rights violations and advise the government on laws to curb such abuses, said Malik, who is also the deputy president of the National Human Rights Society.

He said the proposed commission would help resolve disputes such as a recent custody battle over the children of a parent who converted to another religion, a short-lived government ban on Bibles published in an indigenous language, and a raid by Islamic morality police on a disco that led to the detention of dozens of Muslims for alleged indecent behavior.

There are no clear laws or guidelines on the core issues of the three disputes _ religious conversion of the children of a convert, a ban on Bibles in languages spoken by Malays and tribespeople, and the powers of religious police.

Details of the proposed commission would likely be submitted to Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi after the conference.

Government authorities have not formally responded to the proposal or said whether they would attend the conference.

"People should not be scared of any fallout, because this important step forward is not meant to stir a hornet's nest or cause instability," Malik said.

Foreign diplomats are also expected to attend the conference, coordinated by groups including the Bar Council, which represents more than 10,000 lawyers, and the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism.