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Malaysia's church leaders warn of rising religious tensions

Council of Churches denies Muslim politician's claim of a 'Christianization agenda'
Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party supporters wave party flags on the eve of the country's 14th general election in Alor Setar on May 8, 2018. The party's deputy president has accused some in the new government of a Christianization agenda

Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party supporters wave party flags on the eve of the country's 14th general election in Alor Setar on May 8, 2018. The party's deputy president has accused some in the new government of a 'Christianization agenda.' (AFP photo)

Published: September 19, 2019 04:53 AM GMT
Updated: September 19, 2019 05:19 AM GMT

Church leaders in Malaysia are alarmed that conservative Muslim politicians are continuing to paint Christianity as a threat to the Muslim-majority nation.

Their unease comes after two Malay-dominated opposition parties, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), formally joined forces last week under the banner of Islamic unity. The union of the once-sworn political enemies has raised fears of worsening racial and religious tensions in the multicultural nation.

The Council of Churches of Malaysia on Sept. 18 denounced a statement by PAS deputy president Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man that some in the new government were pursuing a “Christianization agenda.”

General secretary Herman Shastri said in a press statement that the council was disturbed that a national unity forum held in a church hall was being described as religious involvement in Malaysian politics.

The forum, held on Sept. 14 in the Mega Chinese Methodist Church in Kota Damansara, a township on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, was aimed at encouraging participants to "play their role within the unfolding story of a 'new Malaysia’ by understanding our shared historical heritage, and calling for better understanding of our shared destiny as citizens of our country," he said.

Shastri said the forum, titled "Anak Malaysia? Our story of past, present and future Malaysia,” was part of the church’s National Day observance.

It was held in a church "to help church members to contribute to nation building by participating in a shared narrative that would promote peaceful coexistence and goodwill among all communities," he said.

"To that end, the PAS leader should not imply that the forum was used for political propaganda, and therefore stop insinuating that the church was promoting it."

Deputy Youth and Sports Minister Steven Sim, a Christian and one of the speakers at the forum, said on Sept. 18 that the forum was hosted for Christians to discuss their responsibilities as Malaysians.

“In my speech, I highlighted values from the Bible as a guide to becoming good Malaysians — for example, justice, transparency, helping the meek and poor, rejecting corruption, oppression and racism,” he said.

"I did not criticize or touch on other religions, and in fact urged Malaysian Christians to be good citizens who practiced such values.

"As such, I urge Tuan Ibrahim to respect freedom of religion as enshrined in the federal constitution and stop spreading hate and division among Malaysians of various races."

Divisive politicking

This is the second time in three weeks that church leaders have spoken out against extremism and anti-Christian rhetoric in the country.

On Aug. 28, the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM) chairman, Catholic Archbishop Julian Leow Beng Kim of Kuala Lumpur, said government leaders needed to speak out against divisive politicking if its vision of a “new Malaysia” was to be achieved.

“If this vision is to be realized to benefit all Malaysians including our indigenous people and the poor and marginalized, we need to major on the majors and not labor on the minors," he said in CFM’s Malaysia Day message.

“Our leaders must rise up strongly and courageously spearhead a concerted effort to stamp out extremist communal and religious rhetoric, hate speech, before hearers are incited to commit criminal acts that undermine peace and public order.”

Archbishop Leow said enforcement of the law without fear of favor was imperative to maintain peace in the nation.

“The exuberance and hope which buoyed us up only a mere 15 months ago after GE14 [the 14th general election] is giving way to disappointment, dismay, distrust and discontent and racial and religious tensions which jeopardize the unity we need to take our nation forward.”

He made the comments after accusations by a coalition of Malay-Muslim groups that CFM was intent on placing as many Christians as it could in the country’s political leadership as part of an evangelical drive.

The claim was made by the chairman of Ummah (community of Muslims) and Ikatan Muslim Malaysia president Aminuddin Yahya in his speech during the National Ummah Unity Convention on Aug. 25.

Aminuddin also claimed Christian evangelism was a major threat to the majority Malay-Muslim community along with liberalism and human rights and accused Christian evangelists of converting Muslims.

His comments drew condemnation from the Council of Churches, who demanded action be taken against Ummah for attempting to derail interfaith relations.

The politicization of religious affairs relates to perceived shifts in the power balance in Malaysia. It gained traction under the regime of the previous UMNO-led Barisan Nasional coalition government led by disgraced former prime minister Najib Razak, who is now being tried for corruption.

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