New York Times, Dec 12 2011, LIZ GOOCH
KUALA LUMPUR — Beneath windows framed with forest-green wreaths studded
with red and gold baubles, worshipers at St. Mary’s Anglican Cathedral,
one of the oldest churches in Malaysia, knelt and clasped their hands in
prayer. As part of the Advent service, they celebrated a baptism and
sang their way through a series of hymns including “Child in the
But their voices masked the unease many Christians in Malaysia are feeling this season, following accusations that they are trying to “Christianize” this Muslim-majority country by converting Muslims, which is illegal.
“It’s unfortunate that the authorities don’t take the relevant action against those making such wild allegations,” said Bishop Jason Selvaraj, who led the service at St. Mary’s. “We are upset about that. There’s a sense of justice is not done. We have not done anything wrong.”
The Malaysian Constitution both guarantees freedom of religion and designates Islam as the official religion — ethnic Malays are automatically considered Muslims. While Muslims are free to proselytize to others, most states have laws that prohibit members of other religions from proselytizing to Muslims. In Selangor State, the penalties can include a year’s imprisonment and a fine of up to 10,000 ringgit, or almost $3,200.
While the central government’s Department of Islamic Development says no one has ever been formally charged with trying to convert Muslims, recent statements by Muslim politicians and groups promoting Islam have left many Christians, who make up just 9 percent of the population, feeling victimized. Many are convinced that they are being used as political pawns to win support among Muslim voters in advance of the next general election, widely expected to be held next year.
“I think Christians are generally feeling that there is kind of a Christian-bashing going on,” said the Rev. Thomas Philips, a Syrian Orthodox priest and vice president of the Council of Churches of Malaysia, a group that represents Protestant and Orthodox churches.
While Christians, for the most part, work and live peacefully alongside Muslims in Malaysia, several incidents have heightened tensions in recent years, including the firebombing of churches in 2010.
The latest round of religious tensions was set off in August, when Selangor religious officials interrupted a church dinner outside of Kuala Lumpur, saying they had information that these Christians were proselytizing to Muslims.
Although the sultan of Selangor eventually concluded that there was “insufficient” evidence to take further legal action, Muslim politicians and leaders of Himpun, a new organization that has pledged to protect Islam, have continued to charge that there is a plot by some opposition political parties and Christian organizations to “Christianize” the country.
On Nov. 29, Ahmad Maslan, a deputy minister from the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, the dominant party in the governing coalition, asserted that Islam would be “lost” if the opposition gained seats in the next election, according to a report by The Malaysian Insider, a news Web site.
“Say goodbye to Islam, because they are agents of Christianization,” he said, referring to the Democratic Action Party, a member of the opposition alliance.
The governing coalition, which has led Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957, suffered its biggest loss in the 2008 elections, losing its two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time. Some analysts say UMNO is trying to play on religious sensitivities to win back support from Malay Muslims.
Meanwhile, Himpun is planning a series of rallies around the country to “save and protect” Islam. The group, which held a rally in Kuala Lumpur in October that attracted 5,000 people, complains that the government is not enforcing laws that prohibit trying to convert Muslims.
“If we have a law which is not enforced, then it’s a mockery on the part of the religious authorities,” said Mohammad Azmi Abdul Hamid, Himpun’s chairman.
Christian leaders deny that they are part of a plot to “Christianize” the country. They say recent comments about “Christianization” by UMNO members indicate that the party is trying to shore up its support among Muslims, its traditional support base, before the election.
“The present climate and mood is more political than anything else,” said the Rev. Lawrence Andrew, editor of The Herald, the Roman Catholic Church’s weekly newspaper in Kuala Lumpur. Father Philips, who is also vice president of the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism, said he believed that UMNO was seeking to portray itself as the “savior of Muslims.”
“They are thinking that it will unite the Muslims together, but I don’t think that any Malaysians buy it,” he said. “It’s a political game.”
Farish Ahmad Noor, a political science professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, agrees.
While Prime Minister Najib Razak has been seeking to present Malaysia as a moderate Muslim nation and has opened diplomatic relations with the Vatican and spearheaded a “1Malaysia” policy to promote national unity and inclusiveness, Mr. Farish said his efforts were being undermined by conservatives within his party who were trying to appeal to Muslims. These elements, he said, threatened to alienate non-Muslims affiliated with other parties in the governing coalition, which includes the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress.
“It may prove to be counterproductive in the long run,” Mr. Farish said.
“If this fringe in UMNO thinks this is the only way they can secure the Malay vote, they have to understand that the coalition as a whole has to secure the votes of as many Malaysians as they can, and that includes Christians.”
Mr. Farish said while groups like Himpun say they are independent, “in the minds of Malaysians they are seen as another front” for the governing coalition.
Ng Kam Weng, director of the Kairos Research Center, which studies issues related to Malaysian Christianity, said that UMNO politicians may also be trying to intimidate Christians who were becoming more politically active and playing a greater role in civil society groups.
He said churches were careful not to proselytize to Muslims precisely because this could provoke a “backlash from authorities.”
“I think if the Christian community is clear in its conscience that it has maintained its integrity in how it practices its faith, I suppose we trust in God that he will override human mischief,” he said.
Bishop Selvaraj said the recent controversies would not dampen celebrations at St. Mary’s in the days leading up to Christmas. He has discussed the allegations in his sermons and urged the congregation — Malaysians of Chinese and Indian ethnicity, Africans, Indonesians and Europeans — to pray for peace. He said he has been encouraged by messages of support from Muslim friends.
“The majority of Muslims are good people,” he said.