By Ryan Morgan
8/6/2013 Malaysia (International Christian Concern) – Two weeks ago Muslim activists took to the streets outside of the Vatican’s embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to demand the expulsion of Archbishop Joseph Marino, calling him an “Enemy of the State.” How did a senior Catholic clergyman manage to incur such popular resentment so quickly? By having the audacity to describe arguments in support of Christians using the word “Allah” for God as “logical and acceptable.”
The benign statement made by the Archbishop, who happens to be the Vatican’s first-ever envoy to Malaysia and had only recently arrived in the country, was taken as interference in an “internal” matter in Malaysia. The issue of just who should be allowed to use the word “Allah” is a longstanding one in the country. In 2009 and 2010 at least ten churches were attacked by angered Muslim Malays after a court ruled in favor of a Catholic newspaper that used the word to describe the Christian God. Although no fatalities were recorded, at least one church was firebombed and gutted in January of 2010. The fact that the Malay language version of the Bible has been using the Arabic word for God for more than 400 years seems to have been lost in the debate.
The uproar over the Archbishop’s comments follows a string of incidents that have left some wondering if the country’s approximately three million Christians will be facing an increasingly radicalized Muslim population. Another prominent Catholic figure in the country, Bishop Tan, recently pointed to attempts at passing a forced conversion bill as evidence of the country’s move towards “galloping Islamization.” The bill would have made it possible for children to be forcibly converted to Islam with the conversion of one of the parents, regardless of whether or not the other parent converted or approved. Although the bill was quickly shot down by the ministerial cabinet observers warn that supporters of the new law have not given up on its passing.
Some attribute the sharp increase in tensions to the election victory of Prime Minister Najib Razak’s conservative Basian Nasional political coalition in May. Christians were alarmed when Najib’s coalition erected potentially incendiary billboards during the election campaign plastered with pictures of churches overlaid with text asking citizens “Do we want to see our children and grandchildren pray in this Allah’s house? If we allow the use of the word Allah in churches, we sell our religion, race, and nation…Vote Basian Nasional because they can protect your religion, race, and nation.”
On the bright side it appears that the media spotlight resulting from the protest outside the Vatican embassy has helped focus international attention on the discrimination against religious minorities taking place in Malaysia. On July 24th, a Catholic news source based in Asia broke the story of a suburban primary school near Kuala Lumpur that was forcing non-Muslim students to eat their lunches in the school restrooms during Ramadan. Pictures of the children were posted online by one of the mothers, quickly causing an uproar on social media and prompting the Education Minister to order an investigation.
Unfortunately for the country’s nearly three million Christians it’s unlikely that the uproar over the lunch-time segregation of primary school students is going to alleviate the widespread discrimination they live with on a daily basis. That’s because discrimination is practically enshrined in Malaysian law. The Malaysian Constitution actually defines ethnic Malays as Muslims from birth and makes it nearly impossible for a Muslim Malay to leave the faith. In addition, even attempting to convert a Muslim Malay is illegal, though Muslims are encouraged to proselytize members of other faiths. To make matters worse, the legal system is divided between Sharia (Islamic law) and civil courts. In theory, Sharia courts are only used to try cases involving Muslims. However ,incidents involving both Muslims and non-Muslims have ended up in Sharia courts, thereby subjecting Christians and members of other faiths to Islamic law.
Between the “Allah” controversy, the appeal to radical groups by Prime Minister Najib’s election campaign, and a Constitution that actively promotes Islam over other faiths, an environment in Malaysia exists today that is ripe for religious persecution and discrimination. As Christianity continues to expand in Malaysia it can only be assumed that tensions will also continue to rise until major changes are made to the underlying legal system which so blatantly encourages religious divisions. In addition, a close eye must be kept on groups like the ruling Basian National coalition as they increasingly look to appeal to more radical sections of Islamic society. Only time will tell whether Malaysia will continue its “gallop” towards Islamization or makes the changes necessary to ensure that all 30 million Malays are allowed to practice their faith in peace.