Catholic Church’s New Envoy to Malaysia Wants Closer Ties With Muslims

Kuala Lumpur – The Vatican hopes to strengthen interfaith ties in Muslim-majority Malaysia, the first papal ambassador to the Southeast Asian nation says.

“There is no doubt that one of the main questions of our times is the promotion of inter-religious relations,” Archbishop Joseph Marino, a native of Birmingham, Ala., told The Wall Street Journal in an email interview that was his first in Malaysia.

Although Muslims and Christians have largely lived in harmony in Malaysia, tensions have grown in recent years.

One flash point occurred in 2010, when a Protestant church was firebombed and several other churches were vandalized. The incidents were sparked by a Malaysian court ruling that a local Catholic newspaper, the Herald, could use the word “Allah” for “God,” following a row and legal battle after it did so in its Malay-language section. Some religious leaders and political officials said the use of the term by non-Muslims may confuse Muslims and cause them to stray from the teachings of Islam.

The move to create the Roman Catholic equivalent of an embassy in Kuala Lumpur comes as the Catholic population in the Southeast Asian country has grown to one million, according to the Herald. The step also occurs as the administration of Prime Minister Najib Razak faces increasing pressure from politicians and the public to soothe uneasiness among Christians ahead of the country’s closely contested national elections, which must be held by June 27.

Pope Benedict XVI appointed the archbishop as the first apostolic nuncio – or ambassador — to Malaysia on Jan. 16. The two states established diplomatic ties in 2011.

Archbishop Marino will also serve as an envoy to East Timor and Brunei.

Of Malaysia’s 28 million people, Christians make up about 9 percent of the population. Muslims, by far the largest religious group in Malaysia, are 61% of the population.

In welcoming the American archbishop, Father Lawrence Andrew, the editor of the Herald, said Archbishop Marino “comes as a friend to all, thus showing the face of the Church.”

While acknowledging “relations between the Christians and the Muslims are a little tense,” Father Andrew said the timing of the archbishop’s appointment “is merely co-incidental.”

In addition to the church vandalism in 2010, the court ruling in favor of the Herald sparked Muslim groups to organize rallies accusing Christians of proselytizing to Muslims — a charge Christians deny. More recently, Ibrahim Ali, leader of the Malay rights group Perkasa, called on Muslims to burn copies of Bibles in the local Malay language containing “Allah.”

Malaysian authorities have taken steps in recent years to reach out to Christians. In 2011, for example, Prime Minister Najib visited the pope. Another step came last month. Malaysia doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Israel and officially bans its passport holders from going there. But the government has allowed Christians to go with tour agencies organizing religious pilgrimages with additional restrictions. The Malaysian government lifted some restrictions on Christians, such as on the frequency of visits to Israel.

Mr. Najib welcomed the archbishop, saying in a statement, “It is my hope that we can continue to build greater unity between world religions.”

Prior to his latest posting, the 60-year old Archbishop Marino was the Holy See’s envoy to Bangladesh. A graduate of University of Scranton in philosophy and psychology, he speaks English, Italian, French and Spanish.

“The Holy Father has defined the focus and priority of our missions: dialogue, which has at its heart the spiritual and material good of every person,” Archbishop Marino said.

He said that as the nuncio, whose primary responsibility is to assist the local church in fulfilling its mission, he will also have “much interest in the social, economic and political development of the country.”