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Malaysian tribe wins damages for church demolition, hails it as religious, land rights victory

By Eileen Ng

9/23/2010 Malaysia (Canadian Press) – A Malaysian court has awarded damages to indigenous villagers after ruling that authorities unlawfully demolished their Christian chapel, their lawyer said Thursday.

The members of the small tribe in southern Johor state known as the Straits People took the case to court after authorities tore down their new chapel just 10 days before Christmas in 2005 on grounds that it was built on state land.

The High Court ruled Wednesday that authorities had trespassed on their land and failed to honour a pledge made in 2001 to list the site as customary native land, lawyer Steven Thiru said. It awarded damages to the 51 villagers, with the amount to be decided later.

“They are elated because they feel they have been cheated. This is a victory for their freedom of religion and for their land rights,” Thiru said.

Another tribal church under construction in Kelantan faces demolition after authorities ordered villagers to stop work on it.

Pastor Moses Soo, whose Christian group is helping the tribe build the church, said villagers have defied the stop-work order.

“They are still building it. They feel it is their right to their use of land and their right to practice their religion. The church will be ready by the end of October,” he said.

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