KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 2 — As religious tensions from the five-year-old “Allah” controversy spilled over into the new year, senior Christian clergymen here have appealed for mutual respect from Malaysian Muslims with a reminder that they too have the right to practise their faith according to the precepts of their own religion.
Asked for their wishes for the year ahead, several church leaders here said they want the constitutional rights of Christians recognised and an end to the hate-mongering fueled by the tussle over on word - “Allah” - which has divided Malaysians along geographical and racial lines.
“We are not expecting Malaysia to be a Christian country. The main thing is respect.
“Respect and recognise that each individual has the right to choose whatever they believe,” said Rev Datuk Jerry Dusing, president of the evangelical Sabah Sidang Injil Borneo (SIB).
“That’s the central tenet of human rights,” the head of Sabah’s second-largest church told The Malay Mail Online in an interview on his hopes for 2014.
Dusing said interfaith tensions surfaced when the “Allah” dispute went to court, and recounted the three lawsuits filed separately by the Catholic Church, Sabah SIB and a Sarawakian Christian, against the Home Ministry, to regain what they see as an erosion of their constitutional freedoms.
Numbering some 2.6 million people, Christians make up Malaysia’s third-largest religious group, after Muslims and Buddhists.
Almost two-thirds of them are Bumiputera and are largely based in Sabah and Sarawak, where they routinely use the national language, Bahasa Malaysia, and indigenous languages in their religious practices, including describing God as “Allah” in their prayers and holy book.
However, this minority demographic appears to have been singled out in recent years by certain national leaders and accused of running a clandestine campaign to convert the Muslim majority, an act that is barred under Malaysia’s supreme law even as it provides for each religion’s followers to freely practise their faith and in peace.
Dusing, a cautious man who weighs his words before speaking, has lately found himself having to remind the federal government of the terms and conditions in the Malaysia Agreement, after Sabah Christians dwelling in the north Borneo state as well as in Peninsular Malaysia fell victim to restrictive state Islamic laws to infringe on the constitutional right of non-Muslims.
Islamic enforcement officers in Selangor are planning a crackdown on churches in the new year after the state Ruler, whose mostly ceremonial powers stretches to cover the religious administration of Islam, forbid non-Muslims from using a laundry list of 35 words it regards as exclusive to Muslims, most notably “Allah”, the Arabic word for God.
The chairman of the National Fellowship (NECF) Commission on Sabah Affairs (COSA) noted that such measures in Malaysia’s wealthiest and most industrialised state would impact the religious lives of the many Sabahans—a significant number who are also Christian—who work the factory assembly lines and now call Selangor home.
The pastor pointed out that Sabah and Sarawak had agreed to form Malaysia in 1963, together with Malaya and Singapore, on the express condition that freedom of religion would be protected.
“Christians have equal rights as Muslims [sic],” Dusing said.
“Under the Malaysia Agreement, we are supposed to protect the right of this community,” he said, referring to the minority non-Malay, Bumiputera Christians hailing from Sabah and Sarawak who have settled in the country’s west.
“Now, because of the way Malaysia has developed, this group of people has been oppressed,” he said.
The long-running Muslim-Christian tensions pending the court hearing of the “Allah” lawsuits may have fatigued church leaders, but some believe the shredded ties can be mended and have cast for a way forward to close the rift.
Rev Dr Hermen Shastri, the general secretary of the Council of Churches of Malaysia (CCM), proposed taking a leaf from a Jordanian interfaith initiative to promote interfaith dialogue.
Known as “A Common Word”, a group of 138 Islamic personalities inked an open letter dated Octover 13, 2007, urging the-then Pope Benedict XVI, to promote dialogue between Muslims and Christians.
“In fact, Malaysia even won recognition by the Jordan-based organisation that oversees the progress of the Common Word initiative some two years ago for promoting interfaith harmony,” Shastri told The Malay Mail Online, referring to the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak had mooted a special Cabinet Committee to Promote Harmony and Understanding Among Religious Adherents in 2010, a year after houses of worship nationwide were attacked following the landmark High Court judgment in favour of the Catholic Church, which ruled that “Allah” was not exclusive to Muslims.
Progress within the interfaith committee appeared to have slowed since the death of its charismatic first chairman, Datuk Ilani Ishak, from cancer on February 24, 2011 even though various activities aimed to bridge Muslim and non-Muslim differences continue to be held annually.
Despite that, Shastri appeared upbeat that relations will improve so long as people kept their minds on the goal.
“Religion espouses loving God and neighbour, and adherents to any faith community should seek to live to that high and noble ideal, rather than disagreeing about how God should be called,” he said.
The representative of the umbrella body of Protestant churches said the upcoming appeal of the Catholic Church’s lawsuit to the Federal Court would be a test on how religion can promote peace and harmony.
The Home Ministry had succeeded in overturning the High Court judgment last October, after a three-judge panel in the Court of Appeal ruled that the use of the word “Allah” was not integral to the Christian faith.
“The whole world will be looking at Malaysia. Peace in society can be fostered when religious freedom is actively prompted to teach people to love God and neighbour,” said the Methodist pastor.
Rev Father Clarence Devadass, director of the Catholic Church’s Archdiocesan Pastoral Institute, said he hoped that the country’s leaders would stop acting in racially divisive ways in 2014 for the sake of political expediency.
“In 2014, I hope to see that Malaysians will work sincerely towards building peace and harmony among all peoples, that we learn to respect all communities in Malaysia,” he said.
Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM) chairman Rev Dr Eu Hong Seng prayed that Putrajaya would honour Article 11(3) of the Federal Constitution that protects the right of every religious group to manage its own religious affairs.
“And this includes the right to use their scriptures without any interference, which has been practised since Merdeka,” the pastor told The Malay Mail Online.
Eu said the tussle over usage of the “Allah” word need not have become a complicated conflict if all Malaysians adhered to the Federal Constitution, and steered clear of trying to interpret another person’s religion for him.
“Everyone is entitled to his view of another person’s faith, but what is integral or not, is for the religious leaders of that particular faith to determine. We need to respect boundaries,” he said.
Since the appellate court’s October ruling, the Catholic Church has appealed to the country’s top court for clarity on the religious row that has drawn deep lines between Malaysia’s non-Muslim minorities and its 60 per cent Muslim population.
The Federal Court has fixed February 24 to hear the application for appeal.