Christians upset by Putrajaya curbs on Jerusalem pilgrimage
KUALA LUMPUR, July 6 — Christian Malaysians are unhappy with Putrajaya’s latest move to impose quotas, limit travel time and lengthen immigration approval for their pilgrimages to Jerusalem, an act they see as further erosion of their religious freedom under the constitution, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) has reported.
Until 2009, Christians in this Muslim-majority country have been freely performing pilgrimages to the holy city of the world’s three major faiths — Christianity, Judaism and Islam — despite Malaysia having no diplomatic ties with Israel.
Despite lifting a two year ban on Christian Malaysian pilgrims last year, which was ostensibly imposed due to heightened security risks posed by the long-running Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Putrajaya has tightened the rules for their travel, according to an article published yesterday titled, “Malaysian Christians Complain About Israel Travel Rules”.
The international business paper reported that immigration authorities allow each church to send only up to 20 Christian Malaysians into Jerusalem in one year, halved from before 2009, and have in recent months cancelled at least one church group’s trip after it exceeded the quota.
Citing unnamed sources, WSJ reported Wisma Putra later reversed its decision and approved the trip, but did not disclose the reason.
“We are not going to accept any impediments put before us. So if they say quota, we are not going to accept that,” Reverend Hermen Shastri, the general secretary of the Council of Churches of Malaysia (CCM) told WSJ.
The CCM is an ecumenical fellowship of churches and Christian organisations that are part of the larger Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM) representing 90 per cent of the country’s 2.8 million Christians.
WSJ also reported that CFM is unhappy that Christians are forced to shorten their pilgrimages to one week, again halved from previously, among other measures seen to restrict the religion’s followers constitutional freedom.
“Although the freeze was lifted in April 2011, Christians wishing to make a pilgrimage must now do so through their respective churches only, religious leaders say, with churches asked to write to Malaysia’s Ministry of Home Affairs for permission.
“That process takes between two to three months, people involved in organizing such trips say. If a letter of permission is granted, it can take an additional one to two weeks for immigration officials to handle the necessary paperwork,” WSJ reported.
The widely-read international paper quoted Shastri as accusing Malaysian authorities of “always shifting the goal posts” during meetings between government officials and Christian leaders.
But Malaysian authorities have disputed that their rules are unreasonable.
“We are not making it difficult for them to go to Jerusalem to do their pilgrimage. I don’t see (the conditions) as difficult,” Wan Muhammad Rumaizi Wan Hussin, principal secretary of the Security and Public Order Divison in the Ministry of Home Affairs, was quoted as saying by WSJ.
Christians form 9.2 per cent of Malaysia’s 28.3 million-strong population.
In recent years, 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, in reference to God in many other parts of the world, notably in Arab nations and Indonesia.
Conservative Muslim groups have also accused Christians of attempting to convert Malays, resulting in heightened tension between followers of the two religions.
* A previous version of this story misstated the number of Christians permitted by Malaysian authorities to conduct the pilgrimage annually. This has now been amended to reflect the correct number.