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Several political leaders, including veteran opposition leader Lim Kit Siang, have called on authorities to revoke outdated directives and circulars that contravene the Federal Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion.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


House churches asked not to meet during Games; new crackdown planned for October.

DUBLIN, August 20 (Compass Direct News) – As the Olympics draw to a close, new evidence of religious freedom abuses offers a stark contrast to China’s efforts to provide religious services for athletes and visitors during the Games.

China hired religious clerics to provide these services and published a special bilingual edition of the Bible for distribution to athletes and official churches during the event. Simultaneously, officials asked house church leaders in Beijing to sign documents agreeing not to hold services during the Games, the China Aid Association (CAA) reported on August 13.

More ominously, China has planned a new crackdown on four “troublesome elements,” including house church leaders, for October, when most Olympic athletes, tourists and journalists will have left the country, CAA reported on Monday (August 18).


Positive Steps

A British-based Christian charity, the Bible Society, provided funding for a special bilingual Olympic edition of 30,000 full Bibles and 10,000 New Testaments for distribution in the Olympic Village and to registered churches in the Olympic cities, the Catholic News Agency reported in June. The Amity Printing Press, China’s only government-approved Bible publisher, printed the books in a new multimillion dollar facility that opened in Nanjing in May.

The Chinese government claims that Amity produces more than enough Bibles to meet the needs of the Chinese church, a claim many religious freedom organizations dispute. Amity also prints Bibles for export internationally.

A report circulating before the Games declared that China had banned Bibles from the Olympic Village, but this report proved false.

Officials also hired religious clerics from the five government-approved faiths to provide services for athletes and tourists during the Games. The five groups are Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, Protestants and Catholics; each one answers to a specific religious institution appointed to oversee their activities.


Restrictions in Place

In the lead-up to the Games, officials asked a number of house church pastors to sign a document agreeing to forego any activities at “Christian gathering sites” or meeting points while the Games took place, according to CAA.

Under this agreement, house churches were banned from gathering from July 15 to October 15, a total of 17 weeks. Those who broke the agreement would face “disciplinary action.”

The agreement asked that house churches “refrain from organizing and joining illegal gatherings and refrain from receiving donations, sermons and preaching from overseas religious organizations and groups that have a purpose.”

The Union of Catholic Asian News confirmed in a report on August 7 that officials had forbidden bishops and priests in unregistered Catholic churches to administer sacraments or do pastoral work during the Games.

Officials placed several underground bishops under house arrest and forbade them to contact their priests, the report added.

In Wuqiu village of Jinxian county, Hebei, police erected a small “house” in front of the cathedral presided over by underground Bishop Julius Jia Zhiguo in order to provide a facility for 24-hour monitoring of the bishop.

Additionally, Bishop Joseph Wei Jingyi of Qiqihar in northeast China received phone calls from government officials asking if he planned to hold any religious gatherings during the Olympics. Wei said he would stay at home and pray for the success of the Games.

Prior to the Games, police banned several Christians from meeting with visiting U.S. government officials and asked others to leave Beijing for the duration of the event.

Police in July repeatedly asked house church pastor Zhang Mingxuan and his wife Xie Fenlang to leave Beijing. When they refused, police on July 18 entered a guesthouse where they were staying and drove them to Yanjiao in neighboring Hebei province.

When Zhang granted an interview to BBC journalist John Simpson, police detained Zhang and Xie before the interview could take place. (See Compass Direct News, “Chinese House Church Pastor Detained,” August 7.)

On August 10, police seized house church pastor and activist Hua Huiqi when he attempted to participate in a service at the government-approved Juanjie Protestant church in Beijing, where U.S. President George Bush was scheduled to appear.

Hua, still in hiding, wrote a letter to Bush later that day, pleading for prayer for his personal safety and for freedom of belief for all Chinese people. (See Compass Direct News, “Chinese Christians Plead for Relief as Olympics Continue,” August 13.)


October Crackdown

More prayer may be requested in coming months. China’s Communist Party (CPC) will launch a nationwide crackdown on four “unstable social elements” in October, CAA reported on Monday (August 18).

These elements were listed as illegal Christian house church leaders, petitioners, human rights defenders and political dissidents.

Outlined in a secret government directive passed to CAA, the crackdown is designed to coincide with a new campaign for “20 more years of political and social stability” in China.

In a speech on June 16, Zhou Yongkang, head of the Political and Legal Committee of the Central Committee of the CPC, called for “extraordinary measures” to be taken against these elements in order to protect the CPC’s continuous rule and reform programs.

The Beijing Municipal State Security Bureau has also begun a new citizen informant initiative, requiring ordinary citizens to report individuals and organizations posing a threat to national security, including those who “engage in activities that endanger state security by utilizing religions,” according to CAA.

Report from Compass Direct News