The Church of the Immaculate Conception in George Town on the island of Penang. (Photo: Wikipedia)
As Malaysian churches reopen after a months-long lockdown, Catholics are facing a “new normal” in worship.
During Masses churchgoers are asked to sit at safe distances from one another with plenty of spaces left in pews, while they are also required to wear masks throughout the service.
But what many find far more restrictive is that only a select number of worshipers can participate in Masses, with many others barred from services for reasons of safety. The same rules are in place at Protestant churches.
“Empty spaces were seen everywhere. It was a little strange to be in the church with distanced sitting,” Reverend Hermen Shastri, secretary general of the Council of Churches of Malaysia, told a newspaper.
Yet despite the new rules many Christians are delighted at being allowed back in church for services.
Nearly 300 Catholics attended Sunday Mass at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in a suburb of George Town on the island of Penang for the first time after a three-month lockdown during which such gatherings were prohibited to contain the spread of Covid-19.
“I know that many of us wanted to come for this Mass but only 275 people were allowed to be here. We had to register beforehand and take turns,” said Larisaa Ann, a 19-year-old student.
“I registered earlier and felt really lucky and thankful to be able to attend mass after a lapse of more than 90 days. It was a relief to see everyone here, all well and eager. It brings back energy and some hope.”
Those believers who could not secure a seat for the Mass could still follow it online via a livestreaming service.
“It is just not the same attending Mass through livestreaming,” an elderly woman observed, adding, however, that “I hope life will only get better for all of us from now on.”
Christians account for just over 9 percent of Malaysia’s 33 million citizens, with around 40 percent of Christians being Catholic. Christians are particularly well represented in the states of Sabah and Sarawak, both of which are on the island of Borneo, where they make up a third of the population.
Christians are generally tolerated in the predominantly Muslim nation where their freedom to practice their religion freely is guaranteed under the constitution.
In its World Watch List last year, the Netherlands-based mission Open Doors ranked Malaysia at 42nd place out of 50 countries listed based on how difficult it is to be a Christian there.
“Malaysia is no longer designated as a country with ‘very high’ persecution but has dropped to the ‘high’ persecution category,” the report said. “However, while any sense of peace and stability for Malaysian Christians is to be celebrated, it’s important to remember that Pastor Raymond Koh, 60, allegedly kidnapped by individuals connected to senior Malaysian police officers, is still missing.”
Koh was abducted by at least 15 men traveling in three SUVs in February 2017 as the Christian clergyman was on his way by car to visit a friend. His whereabouts remain unknown, and it has been speculated that he was silenced over his missionary work.
Prior to his abduction, Koh had been mailed a box of bullets as a warning to stop his ministry.
“Unfortunately, this is not the only case of Christians being kidnapped in Malaysia,” notes Release International, an interdenominational nonprofit working on behalf of prosecuted Christians.
“Pastor Joshua Hilmy, a Malay Muslim who converted to Christianity, and his Christian wife, Ruth, were last seen on November 30, 2016,” it adds.
The Christian couple, too, remain missing.