World News

Malaysian churches break taboo on politics

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysian churches have waded into the nation’s charged politics, openly urging Christians to support candidates who back religious freedom in this weekend’s election.

Race and religious tensions have mounted in the run-up to the March 8 vote with Buddhist, Christian and Hindu minorities complaining their rights are being trampled by the Muslim-dominated government.

The Christian Federation of Malaysia has joined the fray by telling Christians to vote for candidates whose political views and policies “reflect God’s standard and Christian values.”

“Pay attention to their past performance and for their stand on issues related to constitutional rights, civil liberties and the freedom of religion,” the nation’s biggest church group said in its election message.

In a rare move, the Catholic Church of Saint Francis Xavier near the capital Kuala Lumpur held a political debate last week, drawing some 300 people including opposition and government candidates.

“It’s very difficult to practice our religion freely. The leaders in Malaysia, the way they interpret Islam is very scary,” said Albert Tan, a Catholic.

“Racial integration is going from bad to worse,” the 45-year-old property developer told Reuters after a church service, adding that he was likely to vote for the opposition.

Christians make up about 10 percent of Malaysia’s 26 million people. Muslim Malays form just over half while the remaining are either Hindus, Buddhists or Sikhs.


Christians say they are upset over a series of developments, the latest being a government ban on the use of the word “Allah” for God in Malay-language Christian literature.

The dispute came out in the open after the internal security ministry ruled the term Allah -- long used by Christians in Malaysia to refer to God -- could only be used by Muslims.

And last month, a church group told the government to stop harassing Christians after authorities seized Bibles from them.

Last May, the country’s best-known Christian convert, Lina Joy, lost a battle in Malaysia’s highest court to have the word “Islam” removed from her identity card. In delivering judgment in that case, the chief judge said the issue of apostasy was related to Islamic law, and civil courts could not intervene.

In a country where race and religion are inextricably linked, rising religious tension also throws the spotlight on the privileges of the majority Malays, who are Muslims by definition.

Mosques are found in every nook and cranny in Malaysia but Hindus and Christians say it is difficult to obtain approval to build their own places of worship.

Non-Muslims have also complained, mainly in Internet chat rooms, about the state permitting building of huge mosques in areas with small Muslim populations. State television routinely airs Islamic shows but forbids other religions to be preached.

“I would say that the feel of subtle, backdoor Islamisation of the national life is a major concern,” said Wong Kim Kong, Secretary-General of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship Malaysia.

Although there is no official policy to discriminate against any religious minorities, the government has been unable or unwilling to deal with violations, he said.

Not all Christians are worried, though.

“They (the government) don’t stop you from praying,” said a 50-year-old churchgoer who gave her name as Lilian. “At the end of the day, the church is within yourself.”

(Editing by Jalil Hamid and Sanjeev Miglani); Reuters Messaging: