This year marks the 400th anniversary of the Alkitab, the Bible in the Malay language. The Bible Society of Malaysia and the Protestants’ Theological Seminary of Malaysia are organizing an academic conference and public forum March 2-3 in Seremban and Petaling Jaya to mark the anniversary. While the holy book has been for hundreds of years the source of spiritual nourishment for many Malay-speaking Christian communities in Southeast Asia, it has never stirred the kind of controversies that have emerged in modern Malaysia in recent years. The controversies had much of their roots in startling interventions by the government of the day. In 1612, the Gospel of Matthew was translated into Malay by a Dutch tradesman, Albert Cornelisz Ruyl. Millions of Malay-speaking people have been able to learn and experience the richness of the Christian faith in their lives because of the effort of Albert and many more after him. This sense of appreciation is probably most intense in the territories of Sarawak and Sabah in East Malaysia. A great majority of the people there speak their indigenous languages as well as Malay, Malaysia’s national language. Of the more than two million Christians in Malaysia (approximately 9.1 percent of the population), 70 percent of them are in East Malaysia. So we can say the Christian population in Malaysia is a largely Malay-speaking one. Since the early 17th century, Malay has been the medium of worship, preaching, prayer and religious education in what is now East Malaysia. So it is their spiritual language. Thus, it is no surprise that recent developments concerning the Alkitab have left them distressed and disillusioned. The Alkitab uses the word Allah for God. This became a controversy when the home ministry in 1986 issued a circular banning use of this word by non-Muslims on grounds of national security. This was followed by a string of state enactments that basically gave the circular the force of law. The rationale for the ban apparently was that the term is used in the Qur’an for God, and so using it in Christian publications would confuseMuslims in the country. Never mind that the ban clearly violated freedom of religion guaranteed in the federal constitution. Never mind that the rationale peddled to justify the ban was never substantiated with any statistical or other cogent evidence. What is astonishing is that some parties would actually believe that the 9.1 percent minority Christians could possibly have the kind of extraordinary influence and resources to convert the 60 percent majority Muslims who yield political power in a country that has constitutionally entrenched Islam as its official religion and fortified it with laws that expressly make it a criminal offence to proselytise to Muslims. Not only does that attribute an enormous credit on the largely passive Christians, it simultaneously demeans the intelligence of Muslims and the impact Islam has had on this region since its advent here from the 12th century. Sometime in late 2008, the Home Ministry threatened to stop issuing the Catholic weekly newspaper Herald its annual publication permit unless it complied with an order to stop using the word Allah in its publication. The Herald then decided to go to court on the issue. On December 31, 2009, the High Court declared illegal, null and void the order from the Home Ministry. The government applied for and was granted a stay of the decision pending an appeal to the Court of Appeal. The issue created a storm, and before the dust had even settled, in March 2009, some 5,100 copies of the Alkitab imported by the Bible Society of Malaysia were confiscated upon arrival at Port Klang. This was in addition to an earlier confiscation of 30,000 Alkitab in Sarawak – the state with the biggest Christian population in the country. This elicited a chorus of condemnation, and Christian authorities immediately engaged with the government mainly through its umbrella body, the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM). To make matters worse, the home ministry in a futile attempt to appease the Christian community said it would release the bibles on two conditions – that the words “For Christians only” be printed on the cover of the bibles, and secondly the importer was required to serialize each and every bible. However, before the Christian authorities could respond to this new set of demands, Home Ministry officials went ahead and stamped the confiscated bibles with the prescribed words. The CFM blasted the government for “defacing” the bibles. Realising that it had stirred a hornet’s nest, the government eventually backed down. After a series of meetings with the CFM, the government released the bibles and promised to pay for new ones to replace the defaced ones. A potential factor in the eventual release of the bibles was the fact that Sarawak was about to hold its state elections approximately one month after the issue exploded. Considering that Sarawak was home to the largest percentage of Christians in the country, it dawned on the government that the confiscation may not have actually been a prudent political move. What is clear is that both of these issues have not reached a resolution. The Allah issue has been pending in the Court of Appeal for two years now, while the Alkitab resolution rests on government assurances that have no real legal basis on which the Christian community can firmly rely. Many, including Catholics, have questioned the Church for dragging the issue to the courts, saying it destroyed whatever goodwill the Christians had with the government or that the Church should have been more forgiving. This view does not appreciate the factual experience the Christian community has had with the government and smacks of ignorance of what forgiveness truly means. Over the years, the government has dealt with issues raised by Christians in Malaysia by doling out piecemeal promises, assurances and ad hoc measures. This appeared to satisfy, at least temporarily, the Christian community only for them to see later that these very promises, assurances and measures were being ignored or contradicted wholly. Thus, it is incumbent on the Christian community to learn from these painful experiences and begin to insist on solutions that have a firm footing in law. After all, a government itself is a legal creation and thus everything it does must have a legal basis, particularly when it concerns the rights and duties of parties involved. When Jesus walked the earth more than 2,000 years ago, he was no doubt controversial. The Scribes and Pharisees accused Jesus of confusing the people with his teachings. They regarded him as a threat to “national interest.” Similarly, Pontius Pilate realized Jesus was likely to become a “security threat”’ if he refused to bow to the Jews’ incessant cry for Jesus’ blood. It should come as no surprise that the Alkitab, 400 years after it first came into existence, is now alleged to be a source of “confusion” and a “national security and interest”’ threat. After all, Jesus did say that he is the Word. And since we believe the Alkitab is also the Word, we can draw the incontrovertible conclusion from what is happening that Jesus is very much alive and continues to walk in our midst. Joachim Francis Xavier is a legally trained social activist who has served the Catholic Diocese of Penang for over 10 years. He is now chairperson of the Malaysian bishops’ Episcopal Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerants
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