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Malaysia Christian body snubs state program over Xmas song

The decision came after the request to replace pop song 'Jingle Bell Rock' with the hymn 'O Holy Night' was ignored
Worshippers gather for service at a Catholic Church in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur in this file image

Worshippers gather for service at a Catholic Church in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur in this file image. (Photo: AFP)

Published: November 25, 2023 05:02 AM GMT
Updated: December 05, 2023 03:48 PM GMT

A major inter-church group in Malaysia’s Christian-majority Sarawak state has rejected an invitation to participate in a state-sponsored Christmas program after the organizers declined to replace a popular but commercial song for the celebration.

The Association of Churches in Sarawak (ACS) president Donald Jute said the group will not be involved in “A Christmas Carol, Sarawak in Diversity” program on Dec. 3 after the main organizer TV Sarawak (TVS) claimed it could not meet its request to replace the song Jingle Bell Rock with O Holy Night, the Malay Mail reported on Nov. 24.

“The association expressed its regret that the request was not entertained by TVS,” Jute said in a letter to the Sarawak Unit for Other Religions (Unifor), a focal body for various religious bodies to liaise and interact with state and federal agencies.

The broadcaster said it rejected the request to change the song due to “religious elements” and “protocol” from the Film Censorship Board of Malaysia and the Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission, he said.

The state broadcaster’s refusal to replace a Christmas pop song with a hymn citing religious elements is a “grave insult” to the community, said Voon Lee Shan, president of the Parti Bumi Kenyalang, a Sarawak-based center-right political party, the Malay Mail reported.

“The organizers have failed to understand that although Islam is the official religion in the federation, there is freedom of worship under the Federal Constitution by other religions in this country,” Shan alleged.

‘O Holy Night’ is a Christmas hymn written by French poet Placide Cappeau in 1843 and set to music by French composer Adolphe Adam in 1847.

Shan warned the organizers that it was a sensitive issue for the Christians in the region.

“The organizers should also understand the sensitivity of the matter among Christians in Sarawak because Christmas is associated with the birth of our Lord Jesus and it is also a time for worshipping and singing songs of praise to our God,” Shan said.

Shan also pointed out that if the organizers consider ‘O Holy Night’ to have “religious elements” then there was no reason to invite ACS to attend the program in the first place.

ACS is a religious body of which the “committee members are spiritual leaders of the church that are looking after the interest of Christians in Sarawak,” Shan said.

He also lauded the ACS for withdrawing from the event and stopping the initiation of a “bad precedent” in the country.

“ACS has rightly rejected the invitation as not only will it not only set a bad precedent for the future, but it is discriminatory against Christianity in Malaysia,” Shan said.

The ACS president said the excuse from the state broadcaster was not acceptable.

“It is difficult and hard for us to accept this excuse. As we all know, Christmas is about welcoming the celebration of the birthday of Lord Jesus. Christmas is about Christ. There is no Christmas without Christ,” Jute said.

More than 60 percent of Malaysia’s estimated 32 million people are Muslims, about 20 percent are Buddhists, about 10 percent Christians and 6.3 percent are Hindus, according to 2018 official estimates.

The majority of Malaysia’s Christians live in two of the 13 states, Sarawak and Sabah, on the island of Borneo.

A former British crown colony, Sarawak is the largest state of Malaysia with a Christian majority. About 50 percent of the estimated 2.4 million residents of Sarawak are Christians followed by Muslims (about 34 percent) and Buddhists (12.8 percent).

Protestants, mostly Anglicans, are the majority among Christians in Sarawak. There are an estimated 441,300 Catholics in the Archdiocese of Kuching and Miri and Sibu dioceses.

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