Malaysian churches are taking a stand for religious freedom

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - Malaysia’s churches are wading cautiously into politics by urging Christians to vote for candidates in next month’s general elections who champion religious freedom in the Muslim-majority society.

The call illustrates growing concern among religious minorities who feel their rights are being eroded by a rise in Islamic fervor, which many blame on overzealous Muslim bureaucrats in Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s government.

Churches have begun handing out brochures urging Christians to examine the platforms and records of political parties on “freedom of religion, conscience and speech” before casting their ballots in the March 8 national elections.

“We want to hold every politician accountable,” said Hermen Shastri, executive secretary of the Christian Federation of Malaysia. “Many people may not vote for representatives who won’t speak up” for religious rights, he said. The federation includes the Protestant Christian Council of Malaysia, Roman Catholics and the National Evangelical Fellowship.

Although some churches have made similar calls in the past, many Christians are particularly concerned about the outcome of these elections because of what they regard as “the trend of Islamization and how that is affecting other religious communities,” Shastri said.

He stressed that churches remain nonpartisan, and that the campaign is not an endorsement of secular opposition parties, which accuse the government of allowing religious discrimination to strain decades of multiethnic harmony.

The Christian federation is working with its Buddhist and Hindu counterparts, which may distribute similar pamphlets at temples, Shastri said.

Several recent events illustrate growing religious tension in Malaysia, a nation of 27 million that is about 58 percent Muslim, 23 percent Buddhist, 11 percent Christian and 6 percent Hindu, with other smaller traditional Chinese religions.

In December, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom condemned government actions against the country’s ethnic Indian Hindus, including the use of tear gas and water cannons against peaceful demonstrators, beatings of protesters who sought refuge in a temple and the demolition of Hindu temples and shrines.

The commission said the expanding reach of Sharia, or Islamic, courts is “threatening secular Malaysia’s civil courts and the country’s commitment to religious pluralism.”

While Islam is the official state religion, Malaysia is considered one of the world’s most relaxed Muslim countries. The Southeast Asian nation follows a dual justice system. Shariah courts administer the personal affairs of Muslims, while civil courts are to govern Hindus, Christians, Buddhists and other religious minorities.

However, with the backing of Muslim politicians, Sharia courts have stepped into several high-profile cases involving conversion, marriage, divorce and child custody involving non-Muslims.

The Christian husband of a Malaysian woman who died in December clashed with Islamic authorities who contended she had converted to Islam a week before her death and would be buried according to Muslim rites. A Malaysian court ordered the woman’s body released for a Christian funeral after the conversion claim was retracted.

In another case, a 29-year-old woman who was born a Muslim but converted to Hinduism was ordered by Malaysian authorities to spend six months in an Islamic rehabilitation center, where she said officials tried to make her pray as a Muslim, wear a head scarf and eat beef, a sacrilege to Hindus.

The Malaysian government, meanwhile, recently stated that non-Muslims cannot use the word “Allah,” worrying Christians who use the term to refer to God in their Malay-language Bibles and other publications.

And last month, customs officers seized 32 Bibles from a Christian traveler, saying they were trying to determine whether the Bibles were imported for commercial purposes. A government official said the action was wrong.

Last week, Prime Minister Abdullah assured minorities he was “honest and fair” with all religions.

“Of course, there are minor misunderstandings,” Abdullah said in a speech to Chinese voters. “What is important is that we are willing to talk and solve our problems together.”

Teresa Kok, a lawmaker representing the opposition Democratic Action Party, said the latest church foray into politics “will definitely help to create some political awareness,” but may not swing large amounts of support to the opposition.

Many Christians, especially in urban, middle-class populations, traditionally support Abdullah’s National Front coalition because they “don’t want to rock the boat,” Kok said.

The National Front consists of 14 parties representing various ethnic groups. The coalition, which has governed since 1957, is expected to easily retain power but with a lower parliamentary majority because of religious tensions and complaints over inflation, crime and corruption.