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Religion plays vital role in public sphere

The faithful must act as freedoms come under threat from extremists

  • Joy Appukuttan, Kuala Lumpur
  • Malaysia
  • April 26, 2012
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Recently, some quarters have publicly expressed media concern about the presence of Catholic priests and Religious at public assemblies held to challenge the authorities and openly condemn issues of injustice.

To the people who raised the concerns, perhaps the role of priests and Religious are best served by just taking care of the parish and keeping out of politics.

However, they overlook the Church’s stand on social justice. Surely in the face of corruption, abuse of power and legislating laws that are unjust, the Church cannot sit by and pretend that all is good.

There are numerous examples we can set before us on the Church’s views and actions against injustice.

We have seen the Church’s stand in the Philippines against corruption during the Marcos era. We have seen its stand against abuse of power in Latin America, especially through the late Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador.

We have seen its stand through the late Pope John Paul II, who as Bishop of Krakow, Poland, challenged the then communist regime of his country through rallies and assemblies against unjust laws.

He also criticised the regime for failing to build a church in the new township of Nowa Huta where the regime intended to pursue its communist propaganda to populate the place with industries only. Eventually, a church was consecrated after some 20 years, in 1977.

Now in Malaysia there has been a greater call for clean and fair elections. Repeated statements have been made about irregularities in the electoral roll and other erors in our election process, but these have not been addressed. The introduction of the Peaceful Assembly Act 2011 was anything but peaceful, as its enactment has reduced the constitutional rights of the people, in particular in the areas of freedom of speech and association.

The introduction of the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012, while putting an end to the dreaded Internal Security Act, appears to be a setting for future abuses. It allows one to be held for 48 hours without access to legal representation, and for 28 days detention without trial. It also allows the police to make an arrest without a warrant if the officer merely “has reason to believe” that the person may be involved in “security offences,” a term that is defined vaguely in the Act.

The repeated allegations and threats against Christians made by Hassan Ali, a former executive councillor of Selangor state, and Perkasa, a Muslim-Malay pressure group, appear to go unnoticed by the authorities. They seem indifferent in taking action against them.

The list of injustices goes on. In light of such adversities, our priests and Religious cannot be restrained from voicing out their stand. The Code of Canon Law itself calls on priests and Religious to raise their concerns over injustices.

Canon 768 states: “Those who proclaim the divine word are to propose first of all to the Christian faithful those things which one must believe and do for the glory of God and the salvation of humanity.

They are also to impart to the faithful the doctrine which the magisterium of the Church sets forth concerning the dignity and freedom of the human person, the unity and stability of the family and its duties, the obligations which people have from being joined together in society, and the ordering of temporal affairs according to the plan established by God.”

Circumstances would compel us to act and to put forward our faith in the open. According to the Gospel of John, a Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus after His Crucifixion and death on the Cross.

This Joseph was a secret disciple of Jesus, for he feared the Jews. Together with Nicodemus, another secret follower of Jesus, they wrapped the body in myrrh and aloes and strips of linen and placed it in a tomb donated by Joseph.

What seems uncanny is that these secret disciples who were once afraid to be seen with Jesus in the open have now come forward at a time when it would seem most dangerous to be associated with Jesus. However, Joseph and Nicodemus took the great risk in taking ownership of Jesus’ body at a time when the other disciples went into hiding out of fear.

Like Joseph and Nicodemus, we must have the courage to represent our faith when it is most needed.

The call by those ostracising our priests and Religious for speaking out against injustices should instead be directed against those who keep repeating these injustices. This is a time for action rather than words.

Joy Appukuttan is president of the Catholic Lawyers’ Society of Kuala Lumpur
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