Muslim groups angered by ruling to allow Catholic newspaper to use word ‘Allah.’
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, January 11 (CDN) — In unprecedented acts that stunned Christians in Malaysia, suspected Islamists have attacked eight church buildings since the country’s High Court ruled that a Catholic weekly could use the word “Allah.”
Firebombs were thrown into the compounds of four churches in Kuala Lumpur and neighboring Petaling Jaya on Friday (Jan. 8); three more attacks occurred on Sunday (Jan. 10) in Taiping, Melaka and Miri; and another church building was hit today in Seremban. There were no reports of injuries.
Judge Lau Bee Lan delivered the controversial court ruling on Dec. 31, arguing that the Herald had a constitutional right to use the word “Allah” for God in the Malay section of its multi-lingual newspaper. The ruling caused an uproar among many Muslim groups widely reported to have called for nationwide protests after Friday prayers, asserting that “Allah” can be used only in the context of Islam. Among groups calling for protests were the Muslim Youth Movement and the National Association of Muslim Students.
Inflammatory rhetoric has emerged in the escalating conflict; at a protest in Shah Alam since protests began on Friday, a speaker at one rally urged listeners to “burn churches,” according to the online news site Malaysian Insider. The crowd reportedly stood in stunned silence.
Malaysia’s Home Ministry filed an appeal against the High Court decision on Jan. 4. Two days later, the court allowed a freeze on the decision to permit the Herald to use the word “Allah” pending hearing in the Court of Appeal.
The attacked churches were Metro Tabernacle (Assembly of God) in Kuala Lumpur, and three churches in Petaling Jaya: Life Chapel (Brethren), Assumption Church (Catholic) and Good Shepherd Lutheran Church (Lutheran); also damaged were All Saints’ Church (Anglican) in Taiping, Melaka Baptist Church in Melaka (vandalized but not firebombed), Good Shepherd Church (Catholic) in Miri (pelted with stones) and Sidang Injil Borneo (Evangelical Church of Borneo) in Seremban.
Though there were no casualties, a number of the church buildings were damaged in the attacks. Metro Tabernacle suffered the worst damage, with the ground floor of its three-story building, which housed its administrative office, completely gutted. The main door of the church in Seremban was charred.
The Rev. Ong Sek Leang, senior pastor of Metro Tabernacle, reportedly said that the church harbors no ill feelings toward the culprits and would forgive those responsible, but that it does not condone the acts.
Most of the other church buildings suffered minor damage, though the Assumption Church was spared when the Molotov cocktail thrown into its compound failed to go off. The Melaka Baptist Church building was splashed with black paint, while stones were thrown into the Good Shepherd Church building in Miri.
The Malaysian Insider reported on Friday (Jan. 8) that two other churches received telephone threats from unknown sources.
Christian leaders, government and opposition leaders, and Non-Governmental Organizations have condemned the attacks. Police have promised to increase security around church buildings, but Inspector-General of Police Musa Hassan told the Malaysian Insider that churches must beef up their own security since there is a shortage of police personnel.
Malaysia’s population is about 60 percent Muslim, 19 percent Buddhist and 9 percent Christian. About 6 percent are Hindu, with 2.6 percent of the population adhering to Confucianism, Taoism and other traditional Chinese religions.
The spate of church attacks shocked the Christian community and nation, as acts of violence on places of worship are unprecedented in Malaysia.
Ramon Navaratnam, Chairman of the Centre of Public Policy Studies, said in a press statement on Friday (Jan. 8) that the attacks marked a “troubling trend” and “a low point in our nation’s history.”
The same day, Malaysian Bar Council Chairman Ragunath Kesavan said in a press statement that the attacks were “shocking and offensive” and that “all right-minded Malaysians must condemn it as indecent and unacceptable.”
Christian leaders strongly denounced the attacks and have asked the government to safeguard the community and its places of worship. They have also called on the government to take firm steps against the perpetrators while paving the way for greater understanding between the different religious communities.
The Rev. Dr. Hermen Shastri, general secretary of the Council of Churches Malaysia, called on the government to “show zero tolerance for the use, threat or incitement, of violence as a means to pressure the decision of the court.” The Rev. Eu Hong Seng, chairman of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship, called on the government “to take the necessary steps to educate those who lack understanding and are ‘easily confused’ to be mature-minded in a progressive democratic society.”
Leaders on both sides of the political divide have also denounced the attacks, while a number of opposition leaders – including Anwar Ibrahim, adviser to the People’s Justice Party – put the blame on the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), the leading partner in the ruling coalition government. Anwar reportedly accused UMNO-owned newspaper Utusan Malaysia of having incited Muslims over the court decision.
A number of local commentators have also criticized Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak and Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein for not defusing rising tensions in the initial days of the court ruling. They have also come under fire for saying they would allow public demonstrations by Muslim groups to proceed, and that they would take action “only if things got out of hand.”
Despite the attacks, a check with parishioners of several churches in the Klang Valley showed Christians were undeterred by the acts of violence and continued to gather for worship yesterday.
Urging Christians to pray, Sam Ang, secretary-general of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship, told Compass, “We see this as an opportunity to trust in the Lord and to revitalize our faith, especially for second-generation Christians.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Letter warns weekly of potential ‘sterner actions;’ suspension possible.
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, August 21 (Compass Direct News) – The Ministry of Home Affairs has issued a warning letter to a Catholic weekly demanding an explanation for articles that did not “focus” on religion and for a report that allegedly degraded Islam entitled, “America and Jihad – where do they stand?”
Father Lawrence Andrew, editor of the Herald, revealed on August 10 that the ministry had issued the “show-cause” letter accusing the newspaper of breaking publication rules on July 16.
In an article on August 14, the Sun quoted Minister of Home Affairs Syed Hamid Albar as restricting religious writing to “questions on rituals, adherence to God, followers and anything related to your divine mission.” Despite his apparently broad definition, the minister said mixing religion with politics “can create a lot of misunderstandings.”
The ministry’s letter reportedly warned that it “would not hesitate to take sterner action” if the Herald repeats its alleged offenses. According to The Associated Press (AP), an unnamed ministry official on August 11 said the Herald must explain satisfactorily why it ran the articles and pledge to stick by the rules or risk suspension.
Fr. Andrew told Compass the letter did not specify exactly what the “sterner actions” would be. He has yet to reply to the ministry, since the letter did not specify a date by which the newspaper had to respond.
The letter is the latest in a series that the ministry has issued to the publisher this year. Prior to the show-cause letter, the publisher had received two other “advisory” and “cautionary” letters from the ministry for publishing on current affairs and politics and for allegedly denigrating Islam.
The Herald is a multilingual newspaper published by the Catholic Church of Malaysia with a circulation of 13,000 and an estimated readership of 50,000. The publication is sold in churches and is not available from newsstands.
In his editorial in the latest edition of the Herald (August 17), Fr. Andrew highlighted the upcoming Permatang Pauh by-election, which he called a “serious” election since the outcome would determine the direction of the country for the next four years and beyond. He urged readers to pray that God may grant courage and wisdom to the voters to “choose a suitable and trustworthy candidate.”
The editorial makes no mention of Anwar Ibrahim, adviser to the People’s Justice Party, who is trying to make a comeback to Parliament in the election.
In anticipation of this editorial, a ministry official was quoted in the Star on August 13 as saying the then-yet to be published editorial could earn the Herald another warning letter and possibly suspension.
Defense of Newspaper
The Herald maintains it has not overstepped its boundaries.
According to the AP story of August 11, Fr. Andrew defended the Herald’s stance by saying it is “normal for [Christians] to have an ethical interpretation of current events and politics.”
In an editorial in the August 10 edition of the weekly, the editor added that in response to a previous letter from the ministry, he had informed it that no definition of religion was provided in the application form for renewing its printing permit, and that neither is there a definition of religion in the Federal Constitution. He asked the ministry to point out where the newspaper had gone wrong but has yet to receive a reply.
Bishop Paul Tan Chee Ing, chairman of the Christian Federation of Malaysia, said in an August 15 statement that the letters were “unjustified and an infringement of the right to circulate news within one’s own religious community – a right guaranteed under our Federal Constitution (Article 11).” He called on the ministry to unconditionally withdraw the letters.
“Christians believe that all of life – in its political, economic, social, cultural and religious aspects – come under the sovereignty of God,” he said, and therefore it is necessary to write on such matters to educate Christians to discern God’s will and purpose.
The Catholic Lawyers’ Society issued a statement on Saturday (August 18) in support of the Herald. The society’s president, Mabel Sabastian, called on the ministry to withdraw its letters and maintain the Herald’s publishing permit.
Sabastian argued that “interpretation of what constitutes religious matters should be left to the leaders and adherents of the faith,” and that the government ministry “is not in a position to dictate to Catholics the scope of their religion.”
The Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) reportedly expressed concern over the possible suspension of the Herald, saying it would be deemed as an infringement on freedom of expression.
Late last year, the government issued a series of warnings to the Herald trying to prohibit the publisher from using the word “Allah” in referring to God in the Malay language section of its multilingual newspaper. The government feared use of the word would cause confusion among the country’s majority-Muslim population.
The publisher, however, maintained that it had a right to use the word and has sued the government over the issue. The lawsuit is pending hearing in the courts.
Report from Compass Direct News
Muslim protestors disrupt public forum on dual legal system’s jurisdictional disputes.
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, August 15 (Compass Direct News) – A civil court on Aug. 5 denied a woman’s appeal to renounce Islam in favor of Christianity, highlighting the jurisdictional disputes in Malaysia’s dual legal system.
Lim Yoke Khoon had filed a suit in her original ethnic Chinese name to renounce Islam and embrace Christianity. In a 2-1 majority ruling, the Shah Alam Court of Appeal denied her case on a technicality: According to judges Tengku Baharudin Shah Tengku Mahmud and Sulong Mat Jeraie, Lim had ceased to exist under her original name when she converted to Islam and assumed a new name, Noorashikin Lim binti Abdullah.
The 35-year-old Lim is reportedly expected to appeal to the country’s top civil court.
After marrying a Muslim man in 1994, Lim converted to Islam and obtained a new identity card with her Muslim name. She divorced three years later. In 2003, she applied for a change to her name and religion on her identity card, but the National Registration Department told her she must get permission from the Islamic sharia court to renounce Islam.
She sought a declaration from the high court that she was no longer a Muslim, but it ruled in 2006 that it had no jurisdiction to hear the case.
Malaysia’s civil courts have not been known to rule in favor of non-Muslims in conversion cases in recent years. Many, such as Lina Joy, have been directed to obtain an exit certificate from the sharia court in order to leave Islam. But Lina – and others like her – are reluctant to subject themselves to a religious court that has no jurisdiction over them since they are no longer professing Muslims.
A public forum to discuss such jurisdictional disputes, in this case the dual court system’s effect on families of people who convert to Islam, was scheduled for Saturday (Aug. 9) but Muslim protestors succeeded in halting it after only one hour.
Sponsored by a body of legal practitioners called the Malaysian Bar Council, the public forum that began at 9 a.m. was scheduled to last until 1 p.m., but police advised organizers to end it at 10 a.m. as protestors outside the council headquarters shouting “Allahu Akbar [God is greater],” “Destroy Bar Council” and “Long Live Islam” became rowdy. A handful of protestors flanked by police officers marched into the building shouting for the meeting to end immediately.
The protestors included members from several Malay-Muslim movements, including the Malaysian Islamic Propagation and Welfare Organization and the Federation of Malay Students Union, as well as members of political parties such as the United Malays National Organization, the People’s Justice Party (PKR) and Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS).
The forum had been widely criticized by various Malay-Muslim groups and individuals for raising the ire of Muslims by touching on issues sensitive to Islam. Among those critical were cabinet ministers, including Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar and Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Dr. Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.
Prior to the event, the Bar Council had been urged to either cancel the forum or hold the event behind closed doors, but the organizers decided to proceed albeit with the cautionary measure of requiring participants at the open forum to register.
A day prior to the forum, the Bar Council issued a press release to clarify the purpose of the forum through council Vice President Ragunath Kesavan. Ragunath made clear that the forum would not question the provisions of Article 121(1A), which confer jurisdiction over Muslims in personal, religious and family matters on the sharia courts, and that the forum would not question Islam or its status as enshrined in the Federal Constitution.
Rather, Ragunath said, the purpose of the meeting was to address issues affecting families of those who convert to Islam and were caught between the separate jurisdiction of the civil and sharia courts.
The morning of the forum, two unidentified men on motorcycles threw kerosene bombs into the compound of a residence formerly occupied by the president of the Bar Council, Ambiga Sreenevasan. Many believed the incident was linked to the Bar Council’s forum on conversion.
Other Muslim Responses
Not all Muslims agreed with the protestors’ actions.
Leaders of the Muslim political party PAS and Muslim-led multi-racial party, PKR, have distanced themselves from members who participated in the raucous disruption of the Bar Council forum.
Dr. Dzulkifli Ahmad, director of the PAS Research Centre, told The Star daily on Wednesday (Aug. 13), “We were unanimous that [the forum] should have been allowed to proceed,” and that “those who had united to oppose the forum had no understanding of the issue at hand.”
PKR Deputy President Syed Husin Ali reportedly also condemned the “rough action” of the protestors, although he said the party agreed with its adviser Anwar Ibrahim that the meeting should have been held behind closed doors “in view of the sensitive reactions and wrong perception among a section of the Malay-Muslim community.”
Karim Raslan, a Malay-Muslim columnist at The Star argued that “we can’t achieve any sense of mutual agreement unless we are willing to talk – and openly – to one another about the issues that matter.”
Civil society groups and members of the non-Muslim community, including those from the ruling coalition government, have also criticized the Muslim protestors’ actions for failing to acknowledge long-standing problems non-Muslims caught in jurisdictional conflict situations have had to face and endure.
Others have urged the government to take decisive and immediate steps to address the problems arising from the country’s dual legal system. In Malaysia, sharia laws are binding on Muslims in personal, religious and family matters while civil laws apply to all citizens.
Joint Action Group for Gender Equality, representing five different women’s groups, reportedly called on the government “to act against mob rule and to allow citizens more democratic space for open dialogue.”
T. Mohan, youth coordinator of the Malaysian Indian Congress, a party within the ruling coalition, told online news agency Malaysiakini on Monday (Aug. 11), “[The protestors] should have come out with their proposals in addressing the issue of non-Muslim husbands who abandon their spouses and their families and convert into Islam, rather than stop a legitimate forum.”
Dr. Koh Tsu Koon, acting president of Gerakan, a party within the ruling coalition government, was quoted in local media as calling for the government to convene a joint committee of civil and sharia lawyers “to formulate, clarify and rectify procedures related to marriage between Muslims and non-Muslims, conversion, custody of children and burial rituals.”
Report from Compass Direct News