The prime minister met the Church federation in Sarawak yesterday (photo: Office of the PM)
The idea of one rule for Borneo and another for the Peninsula when distributing Malay-language bibles, floated by the government, has been roundly criticised by a Catholic leader. Bishop Paul Tan Chee Ing, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Malaysia, told the Malaysiakini news website today such a stance was "flatly unacceptable." Prime minister Najib Abdul Razak yesterday held a meeting with Christian leaders in Sarawak to listen to their complaints. Christians constitute half the population in the state. The one-hour meeting took place only three days before elections in the state, where there has been widespread anger at home ministry attempts to ban distribution of the Alkitab (Malay-language Bible), impounding some 35,000 bibles for up to two years before reaching a compromise in late March following a threatened protest by Christians throughout Malaysia. Yesterday's meeting was the first between a prime minister and the Association of Churches in Sarawak (ACS), led by Kuching Anglican Archbishop Bolly Lampok. Malaysia's ruling Barisan Nasional party is struggling to hold on to its requisite two-thirds majority, according to opinion polls in the state. "I don't want to sound churlish, especially after what appears to have been a congenial meeting between the prime minister and the leaders of the [ACS] yesterday," said Bishop Paul Tan, who is also head of Melaka-Johor diocese. "But if the meeting did not go some distance towards removal of this 'one-nation two-policies' federal government stance on the dissemination of the Alkitab, then we are at square one as far as this matter is concerned," he said. The government climbed down over its proposal to print a serial number on every Alkitab to track its readership, but on April 2 proposed that the whole issue be treated differently either side of the South China sea that separates mainland Malaysia from its eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak. A government minister had put forward the idea that, while the two states could have their bibles without let or hindrance, “taking into account the interest of the larger Muslim community for peninsular Malaysia, bibles in Bahasa Malaysia/Indonesia, imported or printed, must have the words 'Christian Publication' and the cross sign printed on the front covers." Bishop Tan said he welcomed assurances of the government's readiness to discuss matters of concern to the Christian community. "But, frankly, openness to discussion and dialogue has not, in the past, been the problem; it is the will to match deed to word, to give effect to fundamental guarantees on freedom of religion enshrined in the federal constitution that is the problem," he said. "When the High Court ruled that Christians have the right to use the term 'Allah' and that its use was not prejudicial to national security, the home ministry's decision to appeal the ruling sent a discordant signal to the Christian community," said the Bishop. "None of the government's recent overtures on the Alkitab affair deals with this issue which is the crux of the matter. Pussyfooting around it may treat its symptoms but not the ailment," he said.