Boy's pork lunch sparks religious tensions in Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - The controversy surrounding the case of a boy who was caned for taking pork to school for lunch has threatened to spark religious tensions in mainly-Muslim Malaysia.

Earlier this month, a school's assistant principal caned 10-year-old Basil Beginda from the eastern state of Sarawak for taking fried rice with pork to school for his lunch.

Consuming pork is not permissible for followers of Islam, which is Malaysia's official religion, but there are no laws that forbid non-Muslim students from eating it in schools or public places.

The boy's outraged mother lodged a complaint with the state's education department, and the assistant principal - who is Muslim - subsequently issued an apology.

However, the case has sparked fierce debate on the rights of religious minority groups in Malaysia.

Non-Muslims, comprised mostly of Christians, Buddhists and Hindus, make up just over a third of Malaysia's 28-million population.

Basil's case has revived longstanding claims by minority religious groups that their rights to practise freely have been threatened under the Muslim-dominated government.

In the last two days, debates in Parliament have skirted around the legality of the assistant principal's act, and instead have been centred around Basil's religion.

Basil's father, Beginda Anak Minda, claimed he legally converted from Islam 1999. His wife, who is a Christian, raised their son as a Christian.

However, a lawmaker claiming to know Beginda said the man was legally still Muslim, resulting in the government calling on the National Religious Department to investigate Beginda's religious status.

If Beginda lacks the legal papers to show he had converted to Christianity, he will be considered still a Muslim, and according to Malaysia's Islamic decree, his son is automatically also a Muslim and therefore forbidden to consume pork.

The response in blogs and chat rooms to the case has been strong, with many Muslims and non-Muslims condemning the punishment and expressing outrage that no action has been taken against the assistant principal.

"The real issue here is not whether the boy is Muslim or not. The issue is the caning of a child for bringing the food of his choice to school," wrote an online commentator who identified himself as Colin.

"The antics of some extremists are bordering on the ridiculous, and now they are bringing it to the school," wrote Lynn, another reader.

While the government takes great pains to project an image of a moderate Muslim society, critics say there is a growing wave of radical Islamism.

Religious tensions reached their highest point earlier this year, when nine churches were fire-bombed or vandalized in one of the country's worst spates of religious violence.

Reports of Islamic authorities seizing the bodies of non-Muslims for Islamic burial rites based on claims that the deceased were Muslims - even when there was no proof of those claims - have also riled minority religious groups.

Earlier this year, the government set up an interfaith committee of religious leaders in the hope of easing the rising tensions, but critics said the panel is unlikely to resolve disputes as its recommendations are not legally binding.