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12/16/2021 Malaysia (International Christian Concern) – The Association of Churches in Sarawak (ACS) issued a call to its followers on Wednesday to be active participants in the upcoming Sarawak state election taking place on December 18th.

A crucial state election in Malaysia is currently making regional headlines as it could develop a route toward greater Sarawak autonomy within Malaysia, after a season of political turmoil in the country. Sarawak is Malaysia’s state with its largest Christian population. While Christianity makes up less than 10% of the population of Malaysia, a self-proclaimed Islamic nation, Christians outnumber Muslims in the State of Sarawak representing 42% to of the state’s population, compared to 28%.

As analysts have identified this election as holding serious potential for greater Sarawak autonomy, Christians in the Malaysian state are becoming more empowered, as Malaysian citizens, as they have an opportunity to expand protections for religious minorities.

As an Islamic nation, the country’s constitution defines a ‘Malay’ as born with roots to Malaya and is of the Muslim faith. While Malaysia’s constitution outlines the rights of all citizens to have the freedom of religion, the system classifies only Muslims as “true Malays.” To be a ‘Malay’ offers one certain extra privileges and rights in the country. This could include spaces in university, seats in public office, and has even been used as a justification for a reserved seat at a restaurant table. This system of affirmative action strips Malaysian citizens of their heritage, and often their opportunities if they convert away from Islam. This well-regulated system also represents the foundations for the nation’s Sharia (Syariah in Malay) courts, which have jurisdiction over Muslims.

Under the constitution, the states are empowered to establish Syariah courts to govern matters of family, domestic, and religious life for Muslims in the country. While they have no official jurisdiction over non-Muslims, there have been several instances of overlap based on the rules established at the state-level, typically in cases of apostasy. The limitations on jurisdiction has not fully prevented members of national and state governments to attempt to expand their reach – this was seen with legislative bill RUU355, which sought to limit the propagation of non-Islamic religions as a power of the Syariah courts. This has allowed for a sense of uneasiness for many of the nation’s Christian followers, as overrule by the Syariah courts require a lengthy and not guaranteed appeal to the countries secular legal system.

However, as this election nears, Christians make up the dominant religious group in Sarawak. As the power of the Syariah courts is rested in the states, active participation is critical to protect the continued freedom of religion enshrined in the Malaysian constitution. A greater autonomy could allow the state to scale back the reach of Syariah courts over non-Muslims and expand religious freedom to a higher-level than offered by the constitution’s fundamental liberties alone. While the ACS takes no political position in their call for participation, they encourage Christians to vote with their conscience.

Given the gravity of this election on Sarawak’s status, the federal government is acting with a welcome restraint as it allows the nations religious minorities vote and act according to faith and according to conscience. The freedom to encourage involvement in politics by religious groups is rarely seen across the region. While we can only speculate on the continued direction of Malaysia, we hope and pray that Sarawak demonstrates the strength of democracy when religious freedom is respected.

For interviews, please contact Addison Parker: [email protected]