KUALA LUMPUR, June 21 — The Orang Asli Development Department (Jakoa) head today warned religious preachers not to take advantage of vulnerable Orang Asli communities and trick them into religious conversions of any sort.
Speaking to Malay Mail today, its director-general Prof Dr Juli Edo pointed out that everyone has a right to their beliefs, and this must be respected.
He added that any intention to convert must also come from one's own volition.
"Rightfully, it should not happen. It cannot happen because we have the (Federal) Constitution. We have laws.
"It shouldn't be that way. You cannot force them to convert and then you cannot trick them or take advantage of their situation," he added.
Juli was commenting on a new report by Utusan Malaysia, in which the Kelantan Islamic Religious and Malay Customs Council (Maik) announced an ambitious plan to convert all the Orang Asli within its state borders to Islam by 2049.
In a report on its website today, the Malay daily cited Maik deputy chairman Nik Mohd Azlan Abd Hadi saying the council has over 100 preachers, including personnel from the federal Islamic Development Department of Malaysia (Jakim), and is working with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) on the proselytisation mission.
“If we can preach to 500 people about Islam, then God willing, in 30 years more, we can convert all the Orang Asli in this state to Islam.
“We have a comprehensive preaching network for the Orang Asli, including a collaboration with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia,” he was quoted saying after Maik’s Raya celebration yesterday at the Lundang Islamic Complex in Kelantan.
Dr Juli said that while the Federal Constitution upholds the sanctity of Islam as the official religion of the federation, it also protects the rights of those who profess to others faith.
"So to convert to a religion, it is more of an individual right, as stated in the Federal Constitution. Any parties cannot force Malaysians to profess to any religion.
"After one attains maturity, they can choose whatever they want to follow," he added.
According to Nik Mohd Azlan in the news report, Orang Asli living in Kelantan number roughly 16,000; of that figure, 5,000 — nearly a third — have embraced Islam.
The aborigines in the Malay peninsula have customarily practised animism though some have converted to Islam and Christianity over the years through various aid programmes offered by missionaries.
Nik Mohd Azlan also reportedly said that through the collaboration with UKM, Maik has developed a preaching plan based on three main modules — the first which involves preparing a database with profiles of Orang Asli members who have converted to Islam and those who have not.
However, the disclosure has drawn the ire of vocal human rights lawyer Siti Kasim, who also made a startling claim connecting the Islamic conversion to the recent deaths of several Orang Asli of the Batek (also spelt Bateq) tribe living in Kampung Kuala Koh in the Gua Musang district.
“I was told the Bateqs in Kuala Koh do not want to inform the authorities on the deaths that were plaguing them precisely because they do not want to be buried under the Muslim rites. A religion where they were forced or coerced to convert into and never practised as one,” she wrote on her Facebook.
Siti, who is known as a staunch campaigner for Orang Asli rights and their welfare, claimed she was approached by an entire village of Batek tribe members who wanted to renounce Islam and go back to practising animism.
“Why does the idea of simply trying to follow your faith, loving others, and NOT trying to convert people cannot be understood by these people? These religious bodies’ agenda to ‘get’ people is so weird to me. Inserting your religious ideals or straight up arguing why people need religion so they don’t go to hell is laughable to me," Siti said.