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Muslims in Malaysia Protest Rumored Baptisms

by Ian Cussler

11/9/06 Malaysia (Compass Direct News) – A protest over a text message and e-mail claiming a Catholic church here would baptize a group of Malay Muslims reflects how volatile tensions have become over conversion from Islam.

Muslims gathered in front of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Ipoh , Perak state, on Sunday (November 5), to protest the claim that “several Malays will be baptized by Datuk Azhar Mansor.” Azhar, a famous Malay mariner who sailed solo around the world, was rumored to have converted from Islam to Christianity.

The electronic message proved false, as the church celebrated only a Holy Communion service for 110 Indian children.

The protestors reportedly dispersed after riot troops arrived in four trucks and a water cannon vehicle, forming a barricade in front of the church. Parishioners were reported to have remained inside the church and continued with their worship celebration until the protestors left.

Father Fabian Dicom, spokesman for the Catholic diocese of Penang , reportedly said that the incident had infringed on the church members’ right to worship, and he lamented that the protestors made no attempt at dialogue.

Police have questioned six people about the text message but have not yet publicly identified the sender.

Racial Tension

The baptism rumor and subsequent protest evoked responses from the country’s highest leaders, who identified the conversion of Malay Muslims to Christianity as a threat to peaceful relations among Malaysia’s ethnic groups.

Referring to the text message and e-mail, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi reportedly said that those responsible deserve harsh punishment: “Police are investigating, and those responsible must be severely punished because they did it with the intent to provoke anger and reactions that lead to racial tension.”

Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak echoed this sentiment. “Firm action must be taken against those responsible,” he told the national news agency, Bernama, “because the SMS [Short Message Service] message is dangerous, as it can lead to racial conflict and create a tense situation in the country.”

One day following the protests, Information Minister Datuk Seri Zainuddin Maidin reportedly said, “An SMS that calls on people to gather for a demonstration similar to what happened in Ipoh yesterday is a mischievous, irresponsible and anti-national act.”

Some observers believe the rhetoric of government ministers may indicate that influential Muslim religious leaders were behind the baptism rumor.

“We note that this is yet another incident in a regressive and damaging trend where individuals and groups have deliberately used religion to drive a wedge between the different ethnic groups in the country,” Sisters in Islam spokesperson Zaitun Kasim reportedly said.

Chinese and Indians make up most of Malaysia ’s Christian population, while Malays form most of the country’s Muslims, for whom conversion from Islam to another religion is illegal. The country of 26 million is an estimated 58-60 percent Muslim, while Operation World reports the Christian population at 9 percent.

In February, Perak mufti Datuk Seri Harussani Haji Zakaria made the unsubstantiated claim that 250,000 Muslims had left Islam and that 100,000 more had submitted applications to leave.

Earlier this month, Nasharuddin Mat Isa, deputy president of the Islamic opposition party, PAS, likewise made an unsubstantiated claim that there was a “concerted plot to convert Malays” to Hinduism.

‘Apostasy’ Investigated

Perlis Religious Adviser Datuk Mat Jahya Husein has promised to investigate the alleged conversion of Datuk Azhar Mansor from Islam to Christianity – to determine whether he had committed “apostasy” by converting from Islam, a crime under the Islamic half of Malaysia ’s dual legal system.

“Apostasy is included in the law of every state, and the state government will ensure that it is investigated thoroughly,” he reportedly said. “The allegation involves a citizen of Perlis and concerns the individual’s religion. We have to investigate it thoroughly, as we fear that we would be accused of not doing our job and not paying attention to such matters.”

The outcome of the investigation will be made public to confirm Azhar’s faith. His brother, Azham, called the allegations of Azhar’s conversion slanderous.

“These are all lies,” he reportedly said. “I am sure, and I know my brother. He is a Muslim. Please, don’t disturb him anymore.