Church Buildings Attacked in Malaysia Following Court Decision


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.

Shocked

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 

Karnataka Top in Attacks on Christians in India


Through August, more violence against Christians reported in state than in any other.

NEW DELHI, September 21 (CDN) — With at least 43 incidents of anti-Christian violence, Karnataka saw more attacks on Christians in the first eight months of this year than any other state in India, according to advocacy organizations.

The figure compares with 35 attacks on churches, worship services and Christians during the same period last year in the state, which has become the center of violence against Christians. The states with the next highest incidents of anti-Christian violence from January through August this year were Andhra Pradesh with 14 and Madhya Pradesh with 11, according to figures from the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) and the All India Christian Council.

Former Chief Minister of Karnataka H.D. Kumaraswamy on Sept. 11 called on Gov. H.R. Bhardwaj to rein in abuses by the state’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to ensure that law and order is maintained, reported the GCIC. In several districts of Karnataka during the first eight months of the year, local authorities allowed Hindu extremists to beat pastors, disrupt prayer meetings and worship services, and burn, vandalize, demolish or shut down prayer halls.

After August last year the number of violent incidents against Christians in Karnataka raced up, with a total of 112 attacks on Christians in 2008, and the Christian community fears a repeat of hostilities.

Kumaraswamy noted that a Sept. 10 attack on St. Francis De Sales Church at Hebbagudi, on the outskirts of Bangalore, came just days after Gov. Bhardwaj voiced concern over the security of minorities in the state. Armed attackers broke into the church, damaged statues and other items, smashed windows and destroyed a house behind the building, according to the Evangelical Fellowship of India. Church damages were estimated at 200,000 rupees (US$4,173).

“It is unfortunate that the government did not take any action to curb communal menace even after your caution,” Kumaraswamy wrote in a memorandum to the governor, adding that Gov. Bhardwaj was constitutionally bound to stop state security personnel from violating the law.

The former chief minister said he felt that the attack on the church, located close to the Hebbagudi police station on a busy road, reflected growing religious intolerance and tension in the state, and he criticized Home Minister V.S. Acharya for terming the attack a “minor incident.”

Archbishop of Bangalore Bernard Moras told Compass that past experience leaves him little hope for future justice.

“The state government has promised to make an immediate inquiry into the recent church attack in Hebbagudi, but nothing has been done so far, and we have no results whatsoever from the Justice B.K. Somashekar Commission of Inquiry made into church attacks last year,” he said. “Sad as it is, we feel that justice delayed is justice denied.”

Former chief minister Kumaraswamy has demanded a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into attacks on prayer halls in the state. The leader of the opposition in the state Legislative Assembly, Siddaramaiah (who goes by a single name), has also demanded a CBI inquiry into all attacks on minorities and places of worship. The Hindu reported that he had asked state Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa to stop blaming others for the mistakes of his government.

Siddaramaiah told media on Sept. 13 that members of the Hindu extremist Sangh Parivar were involved in the attacks on churches.

“The BJP government led by B.S. Yeddyurappa has failed to take action against those involved in these incidents that created unrest in society, and now the chief minister is blaming others for the mistakes committed by his government, which has resulted in a law-and-order problem in the state,” he said.

The Hindu reported Siddaramaiah as saying that in an effort to cover up their mistakes, the chief minister and his cabinet dismissed the accusations as efforts to topple his government.

“If the chief minister has any proof to support his statements, let him hand over the issue to the CBI,” Siddaramaiah added. “The truth will be out.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also recently remarked that Karnataka has witnessed a number of incidents of communal violence this year.

“What is more worrisome is that the incidents were not limited to one or two districts,” Singh said in comments that Chief Minister Yedduyurappa brushed off as untrue; the chief minister referred to the violence as a “few stray incidents” that were “blown out of proportion.”

Tensions are high in the districts of Davangere, Mangalore, Bangalore, and also potentially volatile are the districts of Chickmagalur, Chitradurga, Belgaum, Tumkur, Udupi, Shimago, Bagalkot, Dharwad and Kodagu, reported the GCIC.

Chief Minister Yeddyurappa reportedly has instructed police to provide security at all religious venues and directed them to take steps to take preventative measures. City Police Commissioner Shankar Bidari has reportedly said the chief minister ordered security officers to deal sternly with those involved in incidents of religious violence.

The Bangalore Rural police on Sept. 12 reportedly handed over the investigation of the attack on St. Francis De Sales to the Criminal Investigation Department.

Attempted Anti-Conversion Law

Foremost among priorities of the Hindu nationalist BJP when it came to power in Karnataka last year was to introduce the kind of “anti-conversion” law that has provided the pretext for anti- Christian violence in other states.

Alarmed by what they said was an increase in conversions to Christianity, six prominent Hindu leaders on June 25 said that they had urged Chief Minister Yedduyurappa to introduce “anti-conversion” laws similar to those of Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, reported The Hindu. Passage of an anti-conversion bill has been left hanging, however, with negative publicity over communal violence and Christian protests against such a bill.

Such laws are designed to thwart forcible or fraudulent conversion, but they are popularly misunderstood as criminalizing conversion in general. The laws seek to curb religious conversions made by “force, fraud or allurement,” but human rights groups say they obstruct conversion generally as Hindu nationalists invoke them to harass Christians with spurious arrests and incarcerations.

Anti-conversion laws are in force in five states – Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat – and its implementation is awaited in the states of Arunachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. Several cases against Christians have been filed under various anti-conversion laws in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Orissa, but no one has been convicted in more than four decades since such laws were enacted.

Naveen Kumar of the Federation of Christian Churches and Organizations told Compass that Christians from different districts in Karnataka have come out in protest against such a bill since August of 2008. The Christians believe that the passing of an anti-conversion bill in the state would heighten atrocities against them.

Of the 52.8 million people in Karnataka, Christians number slightly more than 1 million.

Report from Compass Direct News 

INDIA: HINDU EXTREMISTS ATTACK PASTORS, MANHANDLE WOMEN


In violation of human rights standards, police arrest Christians for allegedly speaking ill of gods.

MUMBAI, India, Aug. 14 (Compass Direct News) – Hindu nationalist extremists attacked Christians attending teacher training in Dharwad district, Karnataka on Wednesday (Aug. 12), but when one of the attendees escaped and went to police, officers arrested eight pastors on baseless claims of forcible conversion and – in a blow to free speech – for allegedly speaking ill of Hindu gods.

Pastor Moses Bentic, coordinator of the Seva Bharat Mission, told Compass that more than 80 Christians including nine pastors were attending the mission’s teacher training, which began Wednesday in Annigere and was supposed to continue through today. At around 11:30 pm on Tuesday (Aug. 11), 30 Hindu extremists from the Sri Ram Sena (Lord Ram’s Army) entered the facility where the training was taking place, the Patil Sabha Bhavan, and began beating the pastors.

They repeatedly slapped and kicked the pastors, cursed Christianity using foul language and falsely accused them of forcible conversion. The Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) extremists also manhandled young women at the training, most of whom between the ages of 17 and 23, according to the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC).

Pastor Joseph Christopher, who managed to escape from the hall just after midnight, rushed to the Annigere police station to seek help. He told Compass that police were “indifferent” and refused to accept a complaint. Earlier, at about 11:45 p.m., Pastor Christopher had telephoned police but nobody showed up, he added.

“At around 1:30 a.m., two policemen arrived at the Patil Sabha Bhavan and were mute spectators as the extremists collected all the copies of the Bibles and burned them,” Pastor Christopher said, adding that police also took mobile phones from the Christians.

Police officials who arrived at the hall around 4:30 a.m. shouted at the Christians, asked why no prior permission had been obtained for the meeting and took eight pastors to the Annigere police station, according to GCIC. Arrested were Vasant Kumar Hanoka, Simon Rathnappa, Basavaraj Rudappa, Madhan Kumar Yamanappa, Prakash Arjun Kagwadar, Jayraj Shiromani, Vijay Mayekar and Kumaraswamy Govindappa. They were charged with unlawful assembly, rioting, criminal conspiracy and “acts intended to outrage religious feelings by insulting religion or religious beliefs.”

They were sent to judicial custody until Aug. 25.

Police, meantime, had locked the Christians at the teacher training inside the hall. Pastor Bentic said Francis Swaminathan Kaniya, pastor of an independent church, arrived at the hall at 8:30 a.m. for the meeting and was met by Hindu extremist Gangadhar Hallikeri, who repeatedly punched, slapped and verbally abused him outside the Patil Sabha Bhavan; others along with Hallikeri ransacked his satchel, seized his Bible, tore pages out of it and burned them.

“The police had locked up the hall with the other believers inside up to 12:30 pm,” Pastor Bentic said. “After noting down the names and addresses of all the participants, the police escorted the believers in groups to the bus stand and made them leave the place.”

Sub-Inspector Kuber Rajame told Compass that he and other officers went to the Patil Sabha Bhavan at 4 a.m. on Wednesday (Aug.12) based on a complaint by Hallikeri, who along with 15 others accused the Christians of forcible conversion and denigrating Hindu gods.

Sub-Inspector Rajame also said that he had sent police officers earlier, in the wee hours of the morning, to investigate the meeting and that they confirmed that the Christians were speaking derogatorily about Hindu gods. Denying that any of the Christians were beaten by Hallikeri and his group, the sub-inspector added that officers seized CDs, cassettes and books relating to Christianity from the place.

The private nature of the meeting notwithstanding, arrests for speaking ill of religions even in public constitute a violation of free speech as stipulated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which India is a signatory, according to Christian leaders.

Sajan K. George, national president of the GCIC, told Compass that the organization has confirmed the attackers as Sri Ram Sena and Bajrang Dal leaders: Alikere, Palyad Kallur, Mahesh Palyad, Gangadhar Alikere, and Shivkumar Kallur.

“Last year Sri Ram Sena was involved in the attack of over 30 prayer halls in Mangalore city area, Karnataka, and they have the tacit approval of the local administrative machinery,” George said. “That emboldens them to carry out attack on Christians.”

GCIC has appealed to the Governor of Karnataka, the Home Minister of the government of India and the National Human Rights Commission to look into the matter.”

Seva Bharath Mission India has been known for its humanitarian service to northern Karnataka for the past nine years. It provides adult literacy and children’s education programs and has been involved in evening tuition classes for street children. The teacher’s training program was organized to equip men and women from 11 districts in north Karnataka to teach and be a part of the humanitarian mission.

Report from Compass Direct News 

The Indian government to block anti-conversion bill


 

The Indian central government is planning to block the anti-conversion bills that have been introduced by various Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state governments throughout India, but the response is not uniform, reports James Varghese, special correspondent in India for ASSIST News Service.

According to news released by the All India Christian Council (aicc) on their website http://www.christiancouncil.in, P. Chidambaram, the Home Minister of India, has decided to take a firm stand against the controversial anti-religious conversion bill. But the response is different for various state governments.

The website reported that in a state like Rajasthan, where the Congress party is in power, the central government has asked the Rajasthan government whether it plans to drop the bill passed by the earlier BJP government. In Madhya Pradesh where a BJP government is still in place, the government has decided to withhold assent.

According to the news source, the ruling party of Rajasthan has left it to the central government to drop the bill and Madhya Pradesh state has also rejected BJP government’s bill

The news source stated that broadly the bills provisions banned conversion by “force or fraud or inducement” and made it punishable. But all this, the central government says, is a violation of the freedom of religion as laid down in the constitution.

“When I was Chief Minster in those 10 years, there was no case for forcible conversion,” said Dig Vijay Singh, former Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, to the media.

“This is unacceptable and goes against Supreme Court judgments,” said Ravi Shankar Prasad, Leader, BJP.

The BJP-led states had proposed laws in response to the increase in conversions by Christian missionaries.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

INDIA: DEATHS MOUNT AS VIOLENCE SPREADS IN ORISSA


Rampaging Hindu extremists kill four more Christians today.

NEW DELHI, August 26 (Compass Direct News) – At least 18 people are confirmed dead in 92 incidents of violence against Christians since suspected Maoists murdered Hindu leader Swamiji Laxmanananda Saraswati and four others on Saturday (Aug. 23) in Orissa state.

With Hindu extremists inciting hatred by heated accusations that Christians killed Saraswati, the national newspaper Hindu reported today that nine people had been killed in Orissa violence, and a Compass source near the state capital of Bhubaneswar confirmed an additional nine people slain.

The death count by the Hindu included four people killed in the Barakhama area. News agencies had earlier confirmed three dead in Raikia and two others, including a woman, killed in Bargarh, where a missionary-run orphanage was set on fire yesterday. The figure of 92 incidents thus far comes from the Global Council of Indian Christians.

Additionally, the Compass source said that Hindu extremists today killed pastor Samuel Naik of the Bakingia Seventh-Day Adventist Church at Kandhamal, and Jacob Digal and Gopan Naik of Damba village were slain this morning. Also killed today was Golok Naik of Pidinanju village (under Mondakia police station), and yesterday pastor Mukunda Bardhan from Mukundapur, Gajapati was burned to death.

Three other people whose names have not yet been verified, said the source, were killed in Katingia village of G. Udaygiri, along with a pastor belonging to Operation Mobilization from the same area. In Badimunda, about 12 kilometers (seven miles) from G. Udaygiri, nearly 25 Christian homes were burned down.

There were many reports of Christians being pulled from their homes and killed or beaten, with many homes of Christians torched in Baliguda. According to reports by the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), the East India office of Compassion International in Bhubaneswar was ransacked.

Saraswati and four others were killed by suspected Maoists in the swami’s ashram, or religious center, in the Jalespata area of Kandhamal district’s Tumudiband Block in Orissa state. A warning letter found at the Saraswati religious center and use of expensive arms suggested Maoists were behind the attack.

In a state with a strong Maoist presence, police reportedly said they have evidence to link the communist rebels to the murders of Saraswati and his four associates. One police theory is that Maoists would attack Hindu leaders in a misguided effort to gain support among area tribal people, many of whom have converted to Christianity.

On Sunday (Aug. 24) the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a partner in the state’s ruling coalition, and the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) called for 12-hour a shut-down in which inflammatory speeches were made accusing Christians of killing Saraswati.

 

Authorities in Denial

Orissa Police Chief Gopal Chandra Nanda downplayed the violence, telling Reuters that incidents were only “sporadic” and that “some prayer houses have been attacked and vehicles have been burnt.”

Likewise, local authorities and media have painted the shutdown as “peaceful,” denying that organized attacks took place. The state is ruled by a coalition of the BJP and the Biju Janata Dal party.

At the same time, Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) extremists have continued to incite hatred against Christians and criticized the local government. VHP Secretary General Pravin Tagodia accused the state government of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik of acting like a “eunuch” and demanded his apology for the killing of Saraswati and his companions.

“Christians murdered Swamiji, but the government is lying and giving it a Maoist color,” Tagodia said. “Naveen as an individual and police, in particular, are responsible for this attack orchestrated by the church on Hindu dharma.’’

At the same time, a senior leader from Christian relief and development organization World Vision told Compass that a news report about the arrest of their staff members in connection with Saraswati’s killing was false. The police had merely kept two of their employees for protection, he said.

“No complaint had been lodged against them,” he said. “The employees have safely reached their homes.”

 

Widespread Violence

Sources from Kandhamal district said hundreds of Christians along with their families have fled to the nearby forests to save their lives in the rainy climate and are without shelter, food and clothing.

“Three adults and one child were reportedly killed in fresh violence in Barakhama, Kandhamal,” EFI News reported.

At least 14 Christians have been killed in Kandhamal, according to the news agency: Hacked to death by a rampaging mob of Hindu extremists were two Christians in Mutungia village, one in Petaponga village, one in Borimunda village, three in Katinga village, three in Tianga village, three in Adikuppa village and one in Bakingia village.

According to reports received from Kalahandi district, many incidents of violence and house burning have taken place even though it is more than 300 kilometers (186 miles) from the place where Saraswati was killed.

Christian sources said pastor Sikandar Singh of the Pentecostal Mission was beaten and his house was burned in Bhawanipatna. In Kharihar, three Christian shops were looted and burned. Pastor Alok Das was beaten at Kharihar, as was pastor I.M. Senapati. In Aampani, pastor David Diamond Pahar was beaten by more than 200 people. They chased him away from Aampani, and he is hiding in nearby villages.

Pastor Pravin Ship and two other area pastor identified only as Pradhan and Barik were beaten and chased away with their families. In Naktikani, an angry mob surrounded the village to attack Christians. The government sent forces to try to control the mob but without success.

 

Christian Pleas

A delegation of Christian leaders in New Delhi met with Home Minister Shivraj Patil to brief him of the situation and to register their concern. Patil assured the Christian delegation, including the Rev. Dr. Richard Howell, general secretary of EFI, and Father Babu Joseph, spokesperson of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India of the central government’s support in curbing violence against Christians in the state.

Another delegation led by Orissa state Christian leaders met Gov. Rameshwar Thakur with the same objectives. The Rt. Rev. Samson Das and attorney Bibhu Dutta Das were also among those who met with the Orissa governor today.

In Kolkata, the All-India Minority Forum today condemned the attack on churches in Orissa and demanded the resignation of Chief Minister Patnaik for his “failure” to protect religious minorities in his state.

“We condemn in unequivocal terms the incident of burning alive people who belong to the Christian community by Vishwa Hindu Parishad activists, and armed attacks on churches in Orissa,” Forum President Idris Ali said.

‘Kill Christians’

The violence has spread even though church leaders across the country condemned the Hindu priest’s killing and appealed for peace.

The VHP and its allies had called for a 12-hour shutdown to protest the killing of the swami, and Christian leaders expected Hindu mobs would use it to mobilize strikes at the Christian community.

“But what has taken place has even surpassed what we expected,” said one pastor who wished to remain anonymous.

Hindu extremists paraded the body of Saraswati throughout nearby villages, whipping up anger and mobilizing crowds against Christians, in uncontested defiance of a Kandhamal district administration prohibition against the gathering of four or more people. Among the slogans shouted was, “Kill Christians and destroy their institutions.”

In spite of an Orissa state-imposed curfew, crowds violated restrictions and proceeded to attack Christian communities throughout the state. Compass has received reports that the violence has spread to the districts of Gajapati, Phulbani, Nuaparha, Kalahandi, Rayagada and Koraput.

The Orissa Legislative Assembly was disturbed for the second consecutive day at the various calls for the resignation of Chief Minister Patnaik.

Christians make up 2.4 percent of Orissa’s population, or 897,861 of the total 36.7 million people.  

Report from Compass Direct News

MALAYSIA: COURT DENIES WOMAN’S APPEAL TO LEAVE ISLAM


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.

 

Quelling Discussion

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.”

 

Non-Muslim Reactions

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