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Why popes don’t visit Malaysia

All Malaysian Catholics can do is try and get a glimpse of Pope Francis when he is in Singapore
Malaysian Catholics celebrate a special Mass for the late Pope John Paul II at St. John's Cathedral in Kuala Lumpur, on April 7, 2005 .

Malaysian Catholics celebrate a special Mass for the late Pope John Paul II at St. John's Cathedral in Kuala Lumpur, on April 7, 2005 . (Photo: AFP)

Published: April 25, 2024 04:17 AM GMT
Updated: April 25, 2024 06:06 AM GMT

When the Holy See recently announced Pope Francis would be visiting four Southeast Asian countries in September, the Indonesian government sent out a welcome message and spoke about the significance of the visit.

President Joko Widodo had on March 25 sent an official invitation to the pope. The Muslim republic’s home ministry said his visit holds significant importance “not only for Catholics, but also for all religious communities.”

“The visit is also expected to strengthen the message of tolerance, unity, and world peace,” it added reflecting the confidence Indonesia has in its race and religious identity.

The Indonesian government does not see the visit by the head of the Catholic Church as a threat to its Muslimness or a reason for triggering religious violence in the country, although Muslim-Christian clashes have been reported for decades, especially from the eastern part of the archipelago.

Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population in the world at almost 230 million, has had two papal visits — in 1970 and 1989.

Malaysia, on the other hand, has never had a papal visit for the simple reason that its government never sent an invitation to the Holy See. Although no reason was given by the government, many believe this has more to do with politics than religion.

Malaysian leaders have always projected themselves as defenders of Islam and Malay rights. An official visit by a prominent leader from another religion, especially a Christian leader, would be deemed as cowing to the desires and dictates of non-Muslims.

Then, around 15 years ago, a drastic change in the political landscape changed the way Malaysia views the Holy See.

Support for then-prime minister Najib Razak’s coalition, which had been ruling since independence, was nose-diving. The election in 2008 saw his coalition Barisan Nasional losing a two-thirds majority in parliament for the first time in decades. Five out of 12 state governments went to the opposition.

Public anger grew when Najib did not make good on the reforms he promised. Each new day brought to the surface new cases of wastage and leakages in the government and the emerging social media platforms helped disseminate the news far and wide.

There was a string of mass protests with the biggest one on July 9, 2011. These were the Bersih (meaning clean in Malay) rallies organized by a group of non-government organizations and civil society for fair and clean elections. There were protests around the world by the Malaysian diaspora on the same day.

Najib needed to strengthen his support and one of the groups he zeroed upon was the Catholics/ Christians in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak.

Nine days after the July 9 protest, he made an official visit to see Pope Benedict XVI, which led to an agreement to establish diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Malaysia.

The Vatican set up the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See to Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur in 2013. Malaysia appointed former cabinet minister Bernard Dompok, a Catholic from Sabah’s Kadazandusun group, as the first resident ambassador to the Holy See in 2016.

In 2017, the Holy See opened its official chancery in Kuala Lumpur.

Dompok was succeeded by Westmoreland Edward Palon, from the Bidayuh ethnic group in Sarawak. The present ambassador is Hendy Assan, who is also a Sarawak Bidayuh.

Najib was not the first prime minister to meet the pope. That distinction belongs to Mahathir Mohamad. He visited Pope John Paul II on June 7, 2002, a year before he stepped down as prime minister the first time around. It was reported that then Pope John Paul II had wanted to meet him to discuss the Palestinian-Israel conflict.

It was the time of the Second Intifada (Uprising) and there were massive attacks by both sides, resulting in thousands of deaths.

The views of Mahathir, a strong and vocal supporter of Palestine, carried much weight then, and were much sought by the international community despite claims that he is anti-Semitic. Even to this day.

Malaysia’s relationship with the Holy See will continue to be at arm’s length, and there is likely to be nothing more. The present situation where there is a nuncio in Kuala Lumpur and a Malaysian ambassador in Vatican City will remain with hardly any changes.

Catholics only form about three percent of the population. The government presumably sees no reason to strengthen the relationship, despite numerous calls over the decades to invite the pope.

The present Anwar Ibrahim government is struggling to get Muslim-Malay support that can help give him much-needed political stability. He cannot afford any kind of accusation of pandering to non-Muslims.

For now, all that Malaysian Catholics can do is join the tours that have cropped up over the last few days, to get a glimpse of Pope Francis when he is in Singapore — just like when the pontiff visited Bangkok in 2019.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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