KUALA LUMPUR, March 27 — Leaders from the Opposition have described the controversy surrounding Malay bibles and the use of “Allah” by Christians as just the tip of the iceberg in the erosion of non-Muslim rights.
DAP publicity chief Tony Pua (picture) said the government did not seem to be picking specifically on Christians, but other religions other than Islam as well.
“I think that the government has the same treatment to all religions, it’s just that the Christians are speaking up today. If you look at the school system, government departments, you can see mild forms of preferences or restrictions of religions increasing over the years.
“It is already happening, it’s just that [followers of] other religions are not speaking up about it,” he said.
He said for example there was a limit on the number of temples that can be built, and that if it was in a Malay majority area, no other places of worship could be built in the vicinity.
The Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) had issued a strongly worded statement yesterday accusing the government of riding roughshod over religions other than Islam when it imposed conditions for the release of 35,000 Malay bibles seized from Port Klang and Kuching.
In a series of news statements that started earlier this month, the Christian organisation denounced the government for defacing its holy books with the home ministry’s official seal, an act it said amounted to desecration.
About one in 10 Malaysians is Christian.
The MCCBCHST said the authorities seemed to want Malaysians to believe that the Alkitab conflict is solely a tussle between two creeds, Islam and Christianity; and affects only Muslims and Christians.
“After the Christians have been ‘fixed’, who next?” the council had questioned. Pua said, however, that he was anticipating the government would give “superficial forms of religious freedom”, ahead of the coming Sarawak elections.
But he remained convinced that the voters would not buy into the government’s ploy and that more Malaysians were waking up to the reality in terms of limited freedom of religion in the country.
“What they say is true. The question is whether or not it will find resonance among the communities,” he said, referring to the council’s suggestion.
When asked if the continuation of the current religious controversies might heighten the religious or racial tension in the country, he said it will have to depend on the ruling government.
“It depends on the wisdom of the ruling party or ruling elites, leaders, if they decide to uphold the constitution, then there will be no issue but if they take it upon themselves to uphold a particular belief in the expense of others, then it is hard to say,” he said.
Freedom of religion is enshrined in the Malaysian Constitution. Article 11 provides that every person has the right to profess and to practice his or her religion and is subject to applicable laws restricting the propagation of other religions to Muslims.
Under Article 3, the Constitution also provides that Islam is the religion of the country but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony.
PKR political bureau member, Sivarasa Rasiah, said that the root of the controversies between the government and Christian groups stemmed from Barisan Nasional’s thought process, which is very dominated by the Umno Ketuanan Melayu concept.
He echoed Pua’s comments that Christians are not being singled out in these cases.
“Basically asserting the Umno thinking frame that Malay dominance means Islamic dominance,” he said, adding that the historical clash between Islam and Christianity is age-old.
“There is a kind of insecurity which is part of the Malay dominance, where they feel compelled to draw a line in the sand,” he said.
He added that the problem is not with the religion, but with the “politically insecure dominant group”, pointing out that Indonesia does not face the same problems, even though they have the most number of Muslims in the world.
PAS vice-president Salahuddin Ayub once again stood by his party’s stance that they do not have a problem for Christians to use Allah to refer to their God.
“I think that the government should be more understanding about this issue and PAS has a very firm stand about that that Christians can use Allah in the bible as long as use the name in the right context.
“So the government must understand the teachings of Islam,” he said.
Salahuddin pointed out one of the government’s many inactions, is that with the passing of the Datuk Ilani Ishak on February 24, her replacement to lead the national interfaith committee has yet to be announced.
The former lawyer was appointed by the Cabinet to be its special co-ordinator and had been specially handpicked by the Cabinet to head a national committee that saw, for the first time, Muslim leaders at the same table with leaders of other faiths to talk over how to end quarrel and misunderstanding among their followers.
“In the future, the government should engage in all this groups and have round table discussions when it comes to sensitive topics such as religion,” Salahuddin said. He added that the government has the resources to engage the different religious groups across the country.
“We should engage with the people before we make any decisions. The government have to look at this matter to understand and try to [reach a common ground] and not just enforce them in terms of Ketuanan Melayu, that’s the way,” he said.
According to the Population and Housing Census 2000 figures, approximately 60.4 percent of the population practised Islam; 19.2 percent Buddhism; 9.1 percent Christianity; 6.3 percent Hinduism; and 2.6 percent practise Confucianism, Taoism and other traditional Chinese religions.
The MCCBCHST — which represents five out of the country’s six main creeds — reminded the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition of its founder’s words uttered shortly after Independence in 1957, that there should be freedom of worship, speech, want, association, assembly and the freedom of movement.
The MCCBCHST further accused Islamic leaders of not knowing their own religion despite dipping their fingers into the controversy.
Prophet Muhammad was said to have made a promise to a delegation of monks from the monastery near Mount Sinai over 1,400 years ago that Muslims will always protect Christians and their way of worship.
The Christian and Muslim religious communities have been engaged in a tug-of-war over the word “Allah”, with the latter group arguing that its use should be exclusive to them on the grounds that Islam is monotheistic and the word “Allah” denotes the Muslim God.
Christians, however, have argued that “Allah” is an Arabic word that has been used by those of other religious beliefs, including the Jews, for centuries in reference to God in many other parts of the world, notably in Arab nations and Indonesia.
The tussle is still trapped in the courts after the ministry won a stay of the 2009 High Court ruling that allowed Catholic weekly The Herald to use “Allah” in its Bahasa Malaysia section.
The ongoing bible row started in January and came to a head last week after the home ministry stamped the two separate shipments with its official seal before ordering their release.
The Christian importers have denounced the Najib administration for the act, which they say is a desecration of their holy book.
The government had since backed down and offered to paste over the marked Alkitab with labels that simply read “For Christianity”.
With Sarawakians going to the polls on April 16, the twin issues are expected to weigh on the minds of Christians who make up close to half of the hornbill state’s total population.