Malaysian Christians Seek to End Restrictions on Malay Bibles

Federation calls for removal of ‘every impediment’ to importing and printing Scripture.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, April 6 (CDN) — Christian importers of Bibles that Malaysian officials detained are balking at conditions the government has imposed for their release, such as defacement of the sacred books with official stamps.

The Home Ministry stamped the words, “This Good News [Malay] Bible is for use by Christians only” on 5,100 Bibles without consulting the importer, the Bible Society of Malaysia (BSM), which initially refused to collect them as it had neither accepted nor agreed to the conditions. The Home Ministry applied the stamp a day after the government on March 15 issued a release order for the Bibles, which had been detained in Port Klang, 38 kilometers (24 miles) southwest of Kuala Lumpur, since March 20, 2009.

Another 30,000 Bibles detained since Jan. 12 on the island of Borneo remain in port after the Sarawak state Home Ministry told the local chapter of Gideons International that it could collect them if the organization would put the stamp on them. Gideons has thus far declined to do so, and a spokesman said yesterday (April 5) that officials had already defaced the books with the stamp.

The government issued letters of release to both organizations on March 15 under the condition that the books bear the stamp, “Reminder: This Good News [Malay] Bible is for use by Christians only. By order of the Home Minister,” and that the covers must carry a serial number, the official seal of the department and a date.

The Home Ministry’s stamping of the BSM Bibles without the organization’s permission came under fire from the Christian community. In a statement issued on March 17, Bishop Ng Moon Hing, chairman of the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM), described the Home Ministry’s action as desecration.

“[The] new conditions imposed on the release of the impounded Bibles … is wholly unacceptable to us,” he added.

Ng described the conditions imposed by the Home Ministry as tantamount to treating the Malay Bible as a “restricted item” and subjecting the word of God to the control of man. In response, Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein has said the act of stamping and serialization was standard protocol.


Government Overtures

In the weeks following the March 15 release order, the government made several attempts to try to appease the Christian community through Idris Jala, a Christian from Sarawak state and a minister in the Prime Minister’s Department.

Idris issued the government’s first statement on March 22, explaining that officials had reduced earlier conditions imposed by the Home Ministry to require only the words, “For Christianity” to be stamped on the covers of the Bible in font type Arial, size 16, in bold.

Idris informed BSM that the Bibles could be collected in their present state or arrangements could be made to have stickers with the words “For Christianity” pasted over the imprint of the stamps made by the Home Ministry officials. In the event that this was not acceptable, the minister pointed out that BSM had the option of having the whole consignment replaced, since the government had received an offer from Christian donors who were prepared to bear the full cost of purchasing new Bibles.

In response, the CFM issued a statement on March 30 saying, “The offer made does address the substantive issues,” and called on the government “to remove every impediment, whether legal or administrative, to the importation, publication, distribution and use of the [Malay Bible] and indeed to protect and defend our right to use the [Malay Bible].”

Bishop Ng, however, left it to the two importers to decide whether to collect the Bibles based on their specific circumstances.

On March 31, BSM collected the mishandled Bibles “to prevent the possibility of further acts of desecration or disrespect.” In a press statement, BSM officials explained that the copies cannot be sold but “will be respectfully preserved as museum pieces and as a heritage for the Christian Church in Malaysia.” The organization also made it clear that it will only accept compensation from the Home Ministry and not from “Christian donors,” a term it viewed suspiciously.

On Saturday (April 2), Idris issued a 10-point statement to try to resolve the impasse. Significantly, this latest overture by the government included the lifting of present restrictions to allow for the local printing and importation of Malay and other indigenous-language Bibles into the country.

In Sarawak and Sabah, there would be no conditions attached to Bibles printed locally or imported. There also would be no prohibitions and restrictions on residents of these two states carrying such Bibles to other states. A significant 64 percent of Malaysian Christians are indigenous people from Sabah and Sarawak states who use the Malay language in their daily life, and having the Bible in the Malay language is considered critical to the practice of their Christian faith.

In the case of West Malaysia, however, in view of its larger Muslim population, the government imposed the condition that the Bibles must have the words “Christian publication” and the sign of the cross printed on the front covers.


Christian Response

Most Christians responded to this latest overture with caution. Many remained skeptical, seeing it as a politically motivated move in view of Sarawak state elections on April 16. Nearly half of Sarawak’s population is Christian.

Bolly Lapok, an Anglican priest, told the online news agency Malaysian Insider, “It’s an assurance, but we have been given such assurances before.” BSM General-Secretary the Rev. Simon Wong reportedly expressed the same sentiments, saying the Home Ministry already has a record of breaking its word.

The Rev. Thomas Phillips of the Mar Thoma Church, who is also president of the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism, questioned the timing of the proposal: “Why, after all these years?”

The youth wing of the Council of Churches rejected the proposal outright, expressing fears that the government was trying to “buy them over” for the Sarawak election, and that it would go back on its word after that.

Bishop Paul Tan, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, called the proposal an “insidious tactic of ‘divide and rule,’” referring to its different requirements imposed on Malaysians separated by the South China Sea. Dr. Ng Kam Weng, research director at Kairos Research Centre, stressed that the proposal “does not address the root problem of the present crisis, i.e. the Allah issue.”


Muslim Reactions

The 10-point proposal has also drawn the ire of Muslim groups, who view it as the government caving in to Christian pressure.

Perak Mufti Harussani Zakaria expressed his disappointment, reportedly saying, “If the government does this, just cancel the law,” in reference to various state Islamic enactments that prohibit the use of the word “Allah” and other so-called Islamic terms that led to the banning of the Malay Bible. Malay Bibles have not been allowed to be printed locally for fear that they will utilize “prohibited” words.

The Muslim Organizations in Defense of Islam (Pembela) threatened to challenge the 10-point proposal in court if it was not reviewed in consultation with Muslim representatives.

On the same day Pembela issued its statement, the government seemed to have retracted its earlier commitment. The Home Minister reportedly said talks on the Malay Bibles were still ongoing despite Idris’ 10-point proposal, which purportedly represents the Cabinet’s decision.

As a result, James Redas Noel of the Gideons said yesterday (April 5) that he was confused by the mixed messages coming from the government and will not make a decision on whether to collect the Bibles until he had consulted church leaders on the matter, according to the Malaysian Insider.

The issue with the Malay Bibles is closely tied to the dispute over use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims.

In a controversial court ruling on Dec. 31, 2009, judge Lau Bee Lan had allowed The Herald, a Catholic newspaper, to use “Allah” for God in the Malay section of its multilingual newspaper.

The Home Ministry filed an appeal against this decision on Jan. 4, 2010. To date, there is no indication as to when the case will be heard.

Christians make up more than 9 percent of Malaysia’s nearly 28 million people, according to Operation World.

Report from Compass Direct News

Messianic Jewish Church Won’t Appeal Israeli Court Ruling

Congregation sought apology for riotous attack on baptism service.

ISTANBUL, July 14 (CDN) — A congregation of Messianic Jews in Israel who recently lost a lawsuit against an ultra-orthodox Jewish group that allegedly incited a riot against them has decided not to appeal their case, the church’s pastor said.

After meeting with his congregation and members of the Messianic community in Israel, Howard Bass, pastor of Yeshua’s Inheritance church in Beer Sheva, said that although there are strong legal grounds for an appeal, he believes it is not God’s will to do so.

“We didn’t see that it’s right to appeal, even though there is good legal basis. But we don’t feel it’s the Lord’s will to appeal,” Bass said, later adding he felt the verdict was “totally distorted.”

In 2007, Bass filed suit against Yehuda Deri, chief Sephardic rabbi in the city of Beer Sheva, and Yad L’Achim, an organization that fights against Messianic Jews in Israel, for allegedly inciting a riot at a December 2005 service that Bass was leading.

On Dec. 24, 2005, during a baptismal service in Beer Sheva, a group of about 200 men pushed their way into a small, covered structure being used to baptize two new Christians and tried to stop the service. Police were called to the scene but could not control the crowd.

Once inside the building, the assailants tossed patio chairs, damaged audiovisual equipment, threw a grill and other items into a baptismal pool, pushed Bass into the pool and broke his glasses.

In the days before the riot, Yad L’Achim issued notices to people about a “mass baptism” scheduled to take place at the facility in the city of 187,900 people, 51 miles (83 kilometers) southwest of Jerusalem. In the days after the riot, Deri bragged about the incident on a radio talk show, including a boast that Bass had been “baptized” at the gathering.

Bass demanded either a public apology for their alleged role in the attack, or 1.5 million shekels (US$389,052) from the rabbi and Yad L’Achim.

The case, Bass said, was to “honor the name of Jesus Christ in Israel.” He said he sought monetary damages "to show how serious the offenses were under the law."

The 2005 incident was the second time the church had to deal with an attack after Yad L’Achim disseminated false information about their activities.

On Nov. 28, 1998, a crowd of roughly 1,000 protestors broke into a Yeshua’s Inheritance service after the anti-Christian group spread a rumor that three busloads of kidnapped Jewish minors were being brought in for baptism. The assailants threw rocks, spit on parishioners and attempted to seize some of their children, Bass said.

Bass decided to file the 2007 suit after consulting with members of his congregation and the greater Messianic community in Israel. On June 29, he held much the same meeting, with participants deciding not to appeal. Bass relayed details of the meeting in a group e-mail sent to interested parties.

“No one present, nor any who have communicated with me in the past few days, had a conviction that an appeal is the clear will of God,” he said in the e-mail. “Some were uncertain; others were against.”

The judge issued his decision May 24. Bass read about the decision on May 30 on a government website. The judge ruled that Bass’ attorneys did not prove that the rabbi or the group incited the riot.

“He’s saying what happened inside the walls is separate from what happened outside the walls,” Bass said.

He said he was “astonished” at the judge’s bias in the decision.

“It was a bit amazing to see how one-sided it was,” he said, later adding, “It’s not a righteous judgment, it is a bad judgment.”

Bass said he believes the verdict is a “message from God” that injustice toward Jews who accept Jesus as the Messiah is now the “state of things” in Israel.

The judge ordered Bass to pay a fine to the defendants and cover their legal expenses for a total of approximately 155,000 shekels (US$40,123). The judge gave Bass until June 11 to pay the fine. Because of an outpouring of financial support, the fees were being rapidly paid off, Bass said.

“It’s amazing how quickly people started donating,” he said. “That to me is a further indication of God’s favor in the lawsuit. He’s covered it.”

He said a substantial portion of the donations came from inside Israel.

Also in his e-mail, Bass admitted to approaching the case with his hands tied out of respect for others.

“We did not take to court certain persons who clearly were instrumental in the riot, knowing that they would not testify against the Chief Rabbi or against Yad L’Achim,” Bass said. “We strived to respect the Chief Rabbi because he is the Chief Rabbi of the city, despite his total lack of regard” for the church.


Sanctioning Violence

Bass said the verdict may embolden those who want to attack Messianic Jews in Israel. At minimum, he said, the verdict leaves open the potential for future violence.

“They were given nothing to restrain them,” he said. “They were not warned at all by the judge to be careful of what they do.”

The Yeshiva World, a newspaper that caters to the Orthodox Jewish community, has called Messianic Jews both “missionaries” and a “cult.” The newspaper quoted a statement made by Rabbi Dov Lifschitz, founder and chairman of Yad L’Achim.

“We mustn’t become complacent in the face of the ongoing efforts of the missionaries, even as they are licking their wounds from this loss,” Lifschitz said. “This ruling encourages us to continue to fight them with all the legitimate means at our disposal.”

Bass said he understands that not appealing the court loss may lead to the impression that his faith community accepts the judge’s ruling, and because of that, some people in Israel may now side with Yad L’Achim and other anti-Messianic groups.

“We’ve leaving ourselves open to all kinds of opinions,” he said.

But Bass said he is looking at the case in the long term and through the eyes of God. He said that Jesus’ trial was the perfect example of a public defeat and a travesty of justice that God used in a great way.

“His court case seemed like a loss according to the world at the time,” Bass said.

Report from Compass Direct News

Pakistan court releases 18 Muslims held for Gojra violence

Eighteen Muslims arrested in the wake of Gojra violence under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), were released from their local district jail on Saturday, September 19, Pakistan English Daily “Dawn” has reported, reports Dan Wooding and Sheraz Khurram Khan, special to ASSIST News Service.

Gojra, a small town in Punjab province of Pakistan exploded into the international limelight when miscreants on August 1 set ablaze over 50 Christian houses that resulted in killings of seven Christians. Scores of Christians left their houses, fearing further trouble from extremists.

The newspaper said the Muslim men were booked under Section 7 of the ATA on the charges of attacking Christian community on July 29 and August 1 following an incident of alleged desecration of the Holy Quran in Chak (village) 95-JB, Adda Korian, and Christian Colony, Gojra.

They were declared innocent by a joint committee of Muslims and Christians formed to reconcile between both the groups, said the Dawn report.

The committee recommended to the police to delete the names of these 18 people from the Police First Information Report on which they were set free, it said.

Reacting to the release of the Muslim men, Mr. Joseph Francis, Director of the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), has alleged that the Chief Justice Lahore High Court, is “anti-Christian, biased and a fanatic.”

Francis alleged that the Chief Justice had granted bail to the Muslim men without serving notice on the lawyers of Catholic Church, therefore they could not appear in the court the day the accused were granted bails, he said.

He said CLAAS was going to protest against the decision by setting up a hunger strike camp outside Lahore Press Club.

When ANS asked him how Christians could have reservations on the release of the Muslim men when a committee comprising of Muslims and Christians declared them innocent, Mr. Joseph said he doubted the “credibility of the committee.” He went on to say that a Catholic priest of Gojra Shafique had given a pardon to the Muslim men without consulting with the victims.

“How could the Muslim men in question be granted bail when the findings of the Inquiry Commission led by Justice Iqbal Hameed-ur-Rehman have not come to the fore?,” he questioned.

Francis maintained the police in the wake of Gojra violence mentioned names of some 129 Christians in a cross version. Out of 129, he said, 100 Christians are unidentified where as 29 Christians have been named.

He also revealed that a Bishop of the Church of Pakistan, John Samuel and his son have also been named in the cross version, which means these people were not originally named in the FIR but police added their names later as accused.

The CLAAS director said the police arrested two Christian brothers named Naveed and Nouman and claimed to ANS that Nouman had opened fire on miscreants, which he said saved lives of so many Christians as it enabled them to flee the scene.

He said Nouman was in Karachi when the Gojra violence took place but the police have arrested him.

Francis said he lodged a petition against arrest of the two brothers in Lahore High court. Mr. Francis said that when the high court asked the police in a hearing on Friday, September 18, they said the pair was not in its custody rather they have been taken by the law enforcement agencies.

According to Mr. Francis, the court has ordered the Station House Officer, Rasool Ghulam, District Coordination Officer and District Police Officer to explain the court about Naveed and Nouman on October 1, 2009.

Asked to comment on the recent statements by Pakistani religious hardliners and conservative politicians opposing the repeal of Pakistan blasphemy laws, he said he was going to present a memorandum demanding the repeal of Pakistan blasphemy laws to the United Nations in Rawalpindi.

“The religious parties are making a political capital by reiterating their inflexible posture on repeal of the blasphemy laws,” he claimed.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 


Religious police, others warn key figure in expatriate church to leave.

LOS ANGELES, January 30 (Compass Direct News) – A prominent foreign pastor in Saudi Arabia has fled Riyadh after a member of the mutawwa’in, or religious police, and others threatened him three times in one week.

Two of the incidents included threats to kill house church pastor Yemane Gebriel of Eritrea. On Wednesday (Jan. 28), Gebriel escaped to an undisclosed city in Saudi Arabia.

A father of eight who has lived and worked as a private driver in Saudi Arabia for 25 years, Gebriel told Compass that on Jan. 10 he found an unsigned note on his vehicle threatening to kill him if he did not leave the country. On Jan. 13, he said, mutawwa’in member Abdul Aziz and others forced him from his van and told him to leave the country.

“There was a note on my van saying, ‘If you do not leave the country, we will kill you,” Gebriel told Compass by telephone. “Three days after that, [Aziz] said, ‘You’re still working here, why don’t you go out of the country?”

Aziz, another member of the mutawwa’in and a policeman had waited for Gebriel shortly after 9 p.m. A sheikh at a Riyadh mosque, Aziz raged at Gebriel for about five minutes, accusing him of being a Christian and trying to change the religion of others, said a Christian source in Saudi Arabia.

“He finished by telling Yemane to get out of the country or ‘measures’ would be taken,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons. He said Gebriel was in genuine danger of losing his life. “In meeting with me on the morning of Thursday, Jan. 15, Yemane himself was clearly very frightened,” said the source.

That night (Jan. 15), Gebriel told Compass, four masked men – apparently Saudis – in a small car cut off the van he was driving. “They said, ‘We will kill you if you don’t go away from this place – you must leave here or we will kill you,’” he said.

Gebriel subsequently took temporary refuge in a safe house in Riyadh, and after consulting with consular officials from four embassies on Tuesday (Jan. 27), the pastor was whisked away to another city the following day.

In 2005, the religious police’s Aziz had directed that Gebriel be arrested along with 16 other foreign Christian leaders, though diplomatic pressure resulted in their release within weeks.

“No doubt Sheikh Abdul Aziz is still burning,” said the local Christian source. “Nor may such type of death threat be possibly idle words. The current situation and circumstance remind me very much of the machine-gun murder of Irish Roman Catholic layman Tony Higgins right here in Riyadh in August 2004.”


Raids Feared

Gebriel, 42, led a church of more than 300 foreign-born Christians, though because of work obligations only a little over 150 are able to meet regularly in his villa for Friday worship. He fled without his family, as his wife and children had managed to relocate in Egypt in August 2007.

Gebriel and three others started the house church in Riyadh 10 years ago, the local source said, and only a few months ago the pastor handed leadership over to others in the church.

“But right now the entire church is very frightened,” the source said. “They are expecting a raid one Friday shortly – just like in 2005. The congregation doesn’t even know yet that we have whisked Yemane away from them as well as from the religious police.”

In April and May of 2005, the mutawwa’in arrested 17 pastors – two Pakistanis, two Eritreans (including Gebriel), three Ethiopians and 10 Indians. None were deported after their release.

“Are there signs that 2009 might prove to be such a year again? I think so,” the source said. “Every three or four years, there is a clamp-down in Riyadh. It seems that we should expect 2009 to be a year of repression. However, the underground church here is far better placed than heretofore to manage any such persecution.”

The Saudi regime has reportedly begun to restrain the mutawwa’in, which historically has acted as a virtual vigilante force enforcing the kingdom’s Sunni Islamic social codes as volunteer agents of the semi-autonomous Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice. The U.S. Department of State’s 2008 International Religious Freedom Report noted that abuses by mutawwa’in have continued.

“Mutawwa’in (religious police) continued to conduct raids of private non-Muslim religious gatherings,” the report states. “There were also charges of harassment, abuse, and killings at the hands of the mutawwa’in, or religious police. These incidents caused many non-Muslims to worship in fear of, and in such a manner as to avoid discovery by, the police and mutawwa’in.”

In the past year, mutawwa’in sometimes have not respected the Saudi policy of allowing private worship for all, including non-Muslims, according to the report. Religious police are not allowed to mete out punishment, but in the past year the Saudi government has investigated several incidents in which the mutawwa’in were accused of violating restrictions on that and other activities, according to the state department report.

The mutawwa’in still wear no uniforms, but the report notes that they are now required to wear identification badges and can act only when accompanied by police. They are authorized to monitor the practice of non-Muslim faiths, display or sale of pornography, alcohol production, distribution or consumption, and adultery, homosexuality and gambling, among other violations.

While Saudi law forbids public practice of any religion besides Islam, foreigners are generally allowed to worship privately if their congregations do not grow too large.

With the Quran and sayings of Muhammad (Sunna) as its constitution, Saudi Arabia enforces a form of sharia (Islamic law) derived from 18th-century Sunni scholar Muhammad ibn Abd Al-Wahhab that calls for the death penalty for “apostasy,” or conversion from Islam to another faith, although the state department’s report notes that there have been no confirmed reports of executions for apostasy in recent years.

Saudi Arabia’s ruling monarchy restricts media and other forms of public expression, though recently authorities have tolerated criticism of the mutawwa’in and the Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice.

“The government-controlled press frequently criticized mutawwa’in activity,” the report adds.  

Report from Compass Direct News