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

Religious Club Closures in Schools Touch Nerve in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, August 11 (CDN) — More closures of non-Muslim religious clubs in Malaysian schools, including Christian fellowships, have surfaced since the first incident was reported on July 12.

Loh Seng Kok, central committee member of the Malaysian Chinese Association, said at a July 23 press conference that the situation was “getting worse” and that the initial incident at Klang High School was not an “isolated issue.”

Loh based his assessment on complaints received by various religious society representatives. Present with Loh at the press conference were Vice-President of the Young Buddhist Association of Malaysia Loh Yit Phing, President of the Subang Jaya Buddhist Association Chim Siew Choon and Executive Secretary of the Christian Federation of Malaysia Tan Kong Beng.

The Malaysian Insider online news agency reported that Chin Fook Khiang, a parent, disclosed that the Buddhist Society and Christian Fellowship in SMK SS17 in Subang Jaya, Selangor were ordered to stop activities in January 2009 – and that it was the second time the clubs were ordered to close by education authorities since 2005.

The religious clubs were closed even though they had been in operation since before 2000, excluding them from the need for official approval. According to Circular Bill 20/2000, non-Muslim religious clubs formed after education authorities issued the circular in 2000 must obtain their approval before they are allowed. Clubs that existed before the circular was issued do not require approval.

Malaysiakini news agency on July 23 cited an unnamed retired teacher who described the situation as “very serious,” to the extent that some teachers had been transferred because they were active in Christian fellowship activities in their schools.

Loh called for a fairer treatment of non-Muslim associations in the co-curricular activities listed in the co-curriculum management guidelines issued to schools. The guidelines only allow for Islamic religious societies to operate unconditionally without requiring prior approval from the education authorities.

Several political leaders, including veteran opposition leader Lim Kit Siang, have called on authorities to revoke outdated directives and circulars that contravene the Federal Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion.


Public Outcry

Reports of non-Muslim religious club closures first surfaced when The Sun reported on July 12 that three non-Muslim religious student groups, including the Christian Union at Klang High School, were ordered closed by the Selangor education department last month.

Following the report, the Rev. Dr. Thomas Philips, president of the Malaysian Consultative Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST), issued a strongly worded statement seeking “immediate confirmation” and “prompt explanation” from authorities.

“Needless to say,” Phillips added, “if indeed there had been such a directive to close non-Muslim religious societies in schools or to not permit the setting up of such societies in schools, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of National Unity should not be in doubt that MCCBCHST shall protest such a policy with the strongest possible vehemence.”

Following public outcry over the closure, Alimuddin Dom, director-general of education, reportedly said that the directive was a “misunderstanding” by the Selangor Education Department and ordered a reinstatement of the affected religious clubs.

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.


Church Attack Trial

Reports of the religious club closures came amid the trial of three men who have been charged with arson in the attack on Metro Tabernacle church’s building earlier this year.

Brothers Raja Muhammad Faizal Raja Ibrahim and Raja Muhammad Idzham Raja Ibrahim, along with their friend Azuwan Shah Ahmad, were charged with committing mischief by torching the church building at 11:50 p.m. on Jan. 7. Since the trial started on July 6, however, the court has acquitted Azuwan due to lack of evidence.

Both brothers deny burning the church building, though they admit to witnessing the incident. They claim they left the scene of the burning to attend a barbeque at a friend’s house. Raja Muhammad Faizal claims he sustained burns from starting a fire at the barbeque, while his brother Raja Muhammad Idzham says he was injured in the course of helping his brother take off his flaming shirt on the occasion.  

The trial is ongoing.

Metro Tabernacle Church was among several churches that came under attack in January following a controversial court ruling that allowed the Herald, a Catholic weekly, to use the word “Allah” in the multilingual publication. The Herald had challenged the ban imposed by the Home Ministry.

The court decision angered some Muslims in the country who claim the term is exclusive to Islam.

Following the high court decision, the Home Ministry filed an appeal in February and won a stay, preventing the weekly from using the word until the case was addressed in the court of appeal. To date there has been no indication when the case will be heard.

On Aug. 1, Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein was widely reported as saying his predecessor, Syed Hamid Albar, should not have banned the word “Allah” from being used by the Roman Catholic Church, and that the decision will continue to haunt his ministry for a very long time.

Report from Compass Direct News